Reading Behind the Counter

Because I was surprised that our October warmth was finally frosted out – because I only found one glove this morning and biked to the bookshop with my bare left hand balled inside my coat pocket – because my lips are chapped and I’m wearing two sweaters as I sit stationary behind the counter, I’m reading Ted Hughes’ Season Songs (1976). These poems distil transition. They’re half-heartedly kids’ poems about the seasons changing, but Hughes said that the poems ‘grew up’ as he wrote them. And that’s true in both form and content: the sex-imbued spring, the autumn that is all death, the line breaks that piece fragments into mosaic – “On the hive-lip. Snowdrops. Two buzzards, / Still-wings, each / Magnetized to the other, / Float orbits.” Many poems retain repetition and refrains fit for children’s poetry, but they now really read as songs.

Sitting behind the book counter, trying to accept/love the cold and darkness, these are the stanzas I’m loving from an autumn poem, “There Came a Day”:

There came a day that caught the summer
Wrung its neck
Plucked it
And ate it.

Now what shall I do with the trees?
The day said, the day said.
Strip them bare, strip them bare.
Let’s see what is really there.

And what shall I do with the sun?
The day said, the day said.
Roll him away till he’s cold and small.
He’ll come back rested if he comes back at all.

What shall I do with the people?
The day said, the day said.
Stuff them with apple and blackberry pie –
They’ll love me then till the day they die.

Season Songs is a short collection, and I found it in Ted Hughes’ massive Collected Poems (2005, Faber and Faber), which we have on the shelf. Flipping through, I also find my Ted Hughes favorites: “The Thought-Fox”, “Earth-numb”, “That girl”. And all of them are about transition, about nature and decomposition – they animalize humans and anthropomorphize the rest of nature.

At home, I’ve been reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and she does the same: squirrels are “neighborhood children”; wind “crumples the water’s skin.” As winter tip-toes into Berlin, and all our green in-between spaces fall asleep until spring, I’m wondering about our anthropomorphizing impulses, about how we understand our ecosystems’ actions by comparing them to our human reactions. I’m wondering about reading ‘nature writing’ in the city and how we observe seasonal change with a view framed by tall buildings. It feels smaller: the trees lining the streets lose leaves, the grass between the rails browns and turns whispery – we see the individual tree, not the forest; the patch of grass, not the field. And the city slows but doesn’t sleep.

– Emma Wippermann


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