It’s a word!

As Thanksgiving approaches, I find I’m needed in the kitchen and so have asked my occasional guest blogger to step in this month:

The other day, wandering lonely as a cloud through the recesses of the Strand Bookstore in New York City, who/whom should I exchange elbows with but Henrietta “Etty” Alogos, considered by many linguists to be the doyenne etymologist of our time, a woman who when she gives you her word expects you to preserve it in amber.

“My word,” she exclaimed, “it’s you—Bennett. Or, in French, Benet, a silly little country bumpkin beloved by all.”

“I had thought it derived from the Latin benedictus or benedictimus,” I said, “meaning blessed.”

“Bennett,” Etty said, sadly, “you may be right but it just doesn’t matter anymore. We live in a world where words refer only to other words, thanks to that rag-tag bunch of Sorbonne-bred deconstructionists and post-postmodernists.“

“So ‘bumpkin’ and ‘blessed’ aside,” I said, “according to your argument, any word, including my name, could be linked putatively to that of almost anything or anyone, possibly even . . . Shakespeare?”

“Ah. A belligerent fellow by surname if you will, but he knew what a word was worth to his Old Vic audience.”

“Etty, what are words worth these days? I mean, evocatively. A poor young poet with no MFA writing a poem about the joys of nature recollected in tranquility might have a difficult time right now deciding whether the word ‘daffodil’ generates more reader response than, say, ‘asphodel’?”

“My boy, it depends. Some words fly up in value even though most of our thoughts still remain on the down side and never to heaven go, thanks to Monsieur Barthes and his ilk. Daffodil and asphodel share the same narcissus genus, of course, which makes it more difficult to choose one over the other. Couldn’t your versifier simply go on line and ask the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Establishment for guidance on how today’s poetry mavens rate the two flowers?”

It was a sensible suggestion. We embraced wordlessly, and I turned away to seek out the table where remaindered dictionaries and thesauruses were selling at 80% off the publisher’s list price.

— W. E. Bennett

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Fall, falling, fallen

Summer has lingered far into this strange, dry autumn. It was a welcome  guest at first, especially when it came to lawn work, the spade sinking easily into dirt that is often frost-crusted this time of year. But then, seasons never come and go the way they’re supposed to. Like the calendar, they tend to be just a comforting conceit, an attempt to organize the unpredictable. This is perhaps especially true in the Berkshires. Winter can often seem as epic and interminable as a Tolstoy novel, a siege state of endurance, a long hard retreat through enemy territory. Then, spring brief as a chaste kiss.

Here’s a poem by the American poet and critic Ed Hirsch about this particular moment we’re in.

Fall

by Ed Hirsch

Fall, falling, fallen. That’s the way the season
Changes its tense in the long-haired maples
That dot the road; the veiny hand-shaped leaves
Redden on their branches (in a fiery competition
With the final remaining cardinals) and then
Begin to sidle and float through the air, at last
Settling into colorful layers carpeting the ground.
At twilight the light, too, is layered in the trees
In a season of odd, dusky congruences—a scarlet tanager
And the odor of burning leaves, a golden retriever
Loping down the center of a wide street and the sun
Setting behind smoke-filled trees in the distance,
A gap opening up in the treetops and a bruised cloud
Blamelessly filling the space with purples. Everything
Changes and moves in the split second between summer’s
Sprawling past and winter’s hard revision, one moment
Pulling out of the station according to schedule,
Another moment arriving on the next platform. It
Happens almost like clockwork: the leaves drift away
From their branches and gather slowly at our feet,
Sliding over our ankles, and the season begins moving
Around us even as its colorful weather moves us,
Even as it pulls us into its dusty, twilit pockets.
And every year there is a brief, startling moment
When we pause in the middle of a long walk home and
Suddenly feel something invisible and weightless
Touching our shoulders, sweeping down from the air:
It is the autumn wind pressing against our bodies;
It is the changing light of fall falling on us.

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The heat of autumn

It was such an unusually cool, damp August in the Berkshires, I think most of us gave up on summer before Labor Day. The trees were already starting to turn. It was too chilly to have dinner on the porch. Every once in a while, the furnace would kick in — a familiar yet ominous sound, like a phone call late at night. And then last weekend summer came rushing back, swirling warm breezes, singing through the reopened screen windows: I’m here! I’m home! And we forgave and tried to forget, wanting to believe it was so. I took a long swim at a favorite pond. The water was warm as a bath, the sky mid-summer blue. It was wonderful but also disconcerting. Like the genie’s last wish. The third shake of the monkey’s paw. Or anything we know in our hearts is just too good to last.

The Heat of Autumn

Jane Hirshfield

The heat of autumn
is different from the heat of summer.
One ripens apples, the other turns them to cider.
One is a dock you walk out on,
the other the spine of a thin swimming horse
and the river each day a full measure colder.
A man with cancer leaves his wife for his lover.
Before he goes she straightens his belts in the closet,
rearranges the socks and sweaters inside the dresser
by color. That’s autumn heat:
her hand placing silver buckles with silver,
gold buckles with gold, setting each
on the hook it belongs on in a closet soon to be empty,
and calling it pleasure.

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The Language of Bees

The honey bees were back in force this summer, especially in those early weeks when all the world was in fragrant flower. The last few years, their numbers had thinned— making us worry about colony collapse — but, like so many things in nature, their absence seems to have been just part of a larger cycle, at least in our neck of the woods. It’s such a joy to observe bees at their busyness — the meticulous combing of every pollen-dusted pistil, the hoovering across the seed-roughened face of a sun flower. Continue reading

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Fresh mint

It was foolish of me to plant mint in one of the raised beds in my vegetable garden years ago. Mint was born to be wild. It refuses to stay boxed in. Every summer it seems to discover a new escape route — digging underground to pop up in the middle of the marjoram patch or making a bold public grab for purple sage territory. And I have to pull it out by the roots — a thick leggy network that always puts up quite a fight. But the smell that fills the air — that burst of pure freshness — is almost worth the struggle in itself. And then there’s the happy dilemma of what to do with handfuls of fresh mint. Continue reading

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Fireflies

The fireflies are back. Last summer they were a rare sighting, the occasional sad lone light, blinking on and off like a distress signal. But this year they’re out in force, drifting above the wild flower field, rising through the trees and above, to move across the path of the stars. Their bioluminesence is used to attract mates — “I’m here, where are you?” —not unlike teenagers carrying cell phones. And, like so much else about summer, they’re magical with memories of childhood: the jar full of them, glowing in the canvasy heat of a pup tent, the first night I ever slept out-of-doors. Continue reading

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Jack-in-the-pulpit

A small congregation of jack-in-the-pulpits sprouted up seemingly overnight in a patch of newly spread pine bark mulch. I’m not sure whether they traveled as stow-aways in the mulch bags or transplanted themselves from our own woodlands, since these North American natives thrive in moist thickets from Nova Scotia to Florida. They reminded me of the Emily Dickinson poem about going to church by finding heaven in your own backyard. Of the many things I admire about Dickinson, her determination to eschew organized religion is right up there on my list. Continue reading

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Magic Wings

 

One Sunday when the world was still teetering between winter and spring, we drove east with friends through the Berkshire hills to South Deerfield, Massachusetts, home of Magic Wings Butterfly Conservancy and Gardens. From the outside, the building looks something like a large community sporting facility — a skating rink or bowling alley, perhaps — but inside it’s heaven. This is the year-round home of some 4,000 exotic and domestic butterflies and moths, surrounded by a tropical paradise of hibiscus, ferns, bamboo, palm trees, lollipop plants, and an astounding variety Continue reading

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Shore birds

Shore birds are a tenacious lot, foraging for survival between the unforgiving sea and mankind’s ever-encroaching footprint. They’re adaptable, too, and clever. On Captiva Island a few years back, we watched a Great Blue Heron, standing in companionable silence next to a fisherman at the shore line. The heron, whose gaze was directed unconcernedly out to sea, appeared to be merely intrigued by his new friend’s surfcasting skills, but when a cut of the catch was eventually tossed his way it disappeared in a flash. Continue reading

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Valentine

‘Paterson’, the new movie by Jim Jarmusch, is about a week in the life of a poet/bus driver whose poetry is inspired by such every day items as a box of matches. The movie’s poems were actually written by Ron Padgett whose work has brilliantly straddled the every day and the absurd for decades, but I’ll save him for another time. With Valentine’s Day approaching, I hasten to bring you this poem by Continue reading

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Cooking with Cast Iron

I inherited a beautifully seasoned cast iron skillet from my mother who very likely had inherited it from her mother. It’s an 8-inch Wagner Ware Sidney O model, and a little on-line research into its lineage indicates that it was produced in 1922 by the Wagner Manufacturing Company, based in Sidney, Ohio. There’s something Continue reading

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Dust of Snow

I had the good fortune a few years back of hearing the former U. S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan argue for the importance of clarity in poetry, a concept that would seem to go against the grain of contemporary poetics. That’s just one of the many reasons I admire Ryan, whose short, dense, powerful poems often remind me of Emily Dickinson’s. Reading a Ryan poem is like unpacking a Christmas stocking; each is loaded with treats and the joy of discovery.

Ryan’s not afraid to say what she thinks. Like her poems, though, her ideas are often more nuanced and complicated than a first Continue reading

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Relax

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As the days darken, both literally and figuratively, and the cold months loom ahead with unexpected bitterness, I find myself seeking solace in poetry as never before. Like so many others, I’ve turned to such masterworks as W. H. Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’ (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/september-1-1939) and Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/dover-beach) which ring with truth and meaning. But lighter fare can offer sustenance, too, such as this wise and witty poem by the contemporary American poet Ellen Bass. Continue reading

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Milkweed

img_2749Last fall, I was given some milkweed pods by a fellow gardener who had turned over her entire garden to plants beloved by birds, insects, and butterflies. It was, as you can imagine, a magical place. I’d been hoping to plant milkweed to help sustain the struggling Monarch population, and I proudly took my prize home and opened up the pods at the top of the wild flower field. I watched the seeds drift like an army of tiny parachutes over the brown stubbled landscape. Winter soon descended, though not much snow, and I assumed the milkweed had been blown away when nothing sprouted up this spring. Continue reading

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