Catherine says, “It’s so yellow! So bright – it’s never been like this before!"
I’m more cautious. “Every year is a surprise,” I offer.
We’re looking through our windows at the fall foliage. From where we are, on the fifth floor, we can see a lot of fall foliage. It’s past its peak, there is more shedding than turning now.
Still, I think she has a point. This year the leaves were positively livid. But when the wind made them rustle dryly there was also a note of hysteria. I worried that it was the effect of something else, a toxin in the groundwater, or global warming, or the housing crisis. When toads take on colors like that it means they’re full of poison.
I get back in bed with my mug of coffee and suddenly I remember the opening lines of what used to be my favorite fall poem.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness—Just kidding. In spite of cold feet I get out of the covers again and fetch the book from the other room. Here’s the whole thing:
October DayOh Lord, it’s time, it’s time. It was a great summer.Lay your shadow now on the sundials,and on the open fields let the winds go!Give the tardy fruits the hint to fill;give them two more Mediterranean days,drive them on into their greatness, and pressthe final sweetness into the heavy wine.Whoever has no house by now will not build.Whoever is alone now will remain alone,will wait up, read, write long letters,and walk along sidewalks under large trees,not going home, as the leaves fall and blow away.Rainer Maria Rilke(translated by Robert Bly)
It’s an October day in the poem, and a November day outside, but otherwise the mood is about right. When I try to parse a little of the German on the facing page, however, I catch Bly in the act of secreting into the original poem the very tone of “mists and mellow fruitfulness” that I’d just waved off. Rilke’s first line is more astringent than plangent.
Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr gross.The repetition of “it’s time” is all Bly. Rilke’s language is a bowing of the head, Bly’s a wistful waving farewell. “Great” could be an adequate translation of gross if the connotation of majesty were not so subsumed, as it inevitably is in American English usage, by mere generic approbation. Maybe the first line should be translated something like this:
Lord: It’s time. The summer was large.Except “large” misses the hint of abundance and bounty which, given the context, is there in gross. But to say “the summer was abundant” or “the summer was bountiful” clutters the starkness and gravity of the original (like a hymn or prayer) with too many syllables. How about this:
Lord: It’s time. The summer was fat.
No, it sounds unintentionally comic. Or hip-hop: phat. In other places, however, Bly cleaves closer to Rilke: “Whoever has no house by now will not build” doesn’t seem, at least with my very meager German, to depart wildly from Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr. (There’s that housing crisis again; maybe it had been among the mental associations that had recalled the poem to my mind to begin with?) But by the concluding lines of the poem it’s Bly Awry again. Compare:
and walk along sidewalks under large trees,not going home, as the leaves fall and blow away.und wird in den Alleen hin und herunruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.
There are “large trees” in Rilke only by implication (die Blätter are leaves), and to make them explicit Bly must sacrifice the hin und her of the figure’s aimless and even leaf-like drifting through the lanes. Clearly after all he’s writing a Bly “take” on a theme by Rilke. Did I somehow miss this years back, during my Rilke phase, in spite of being far closer in time to the only German classes I’d ever taken? Or had I seen it, but had forgotten it since?
I settle deeper into the pillows and the comforter and glance out the windows at the low grey sky and the black limbs showing through the yellow leaves. Catherine is already out there somewhere on her bicycle. My mind drifts. It’s time, it’s time, it’s 2:30 PM and I’m still in my pajamas. I revise the last stanza of Bly’s poem:
Whoever is in bed now will remain in bed,will drowse, sip coffee, and read a few poems . . .