West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Christmas Ferns

Several people have asked if I’m going to post any of my poems. I have a strange reluctance to share them with the great anonymous society of the web—but then, almost everybody who reads this site is a friend of mine. Without further ado:

Christmas Ferns

In a beech wood at twilight, late fall.
Hoarding their secrets in the red leaves.
Feathers, vertebrae, ladders of scales,
strands of flippers that slit the light,
going from green to gunmetal as day fades.
I saw one in winter, snow-outlined,
a ribcage. They carry names
that have nothing to do with their quiet life.
I could say Christmas ferns, Polystichum acrostichoides;
I could describe fronds and pinnae, rhizome scales, sporangia.
There are words for every part of them
except their shining presence among the leaves;
there are words that weave and do not weave
the web of the way things are.

I want to jot down a few words about the genesis of the poem. I have mixed feelings about this, as well. Any work of art, whether visual, musical, verbal, etc., should stand on its own without burdensome explications. Sometimes the de-mystification of an artifact is almost a despoiling—it robs the reader (viewer, listener, etc.) of the chance to bring his or her own experiences and interpretation of the work. But I’ve found that I often have a deeper enjoyment of art when I understand something of the context where it arose. Hence the metadata, if you will:

Most of my poems are crabbed together in the margins of notebooks over the course of months and sometimes years. This is one of the few that came to me almost whole. It was a Saturday afternoon in late October 2004, and I had been grading student’s lab reports on photosynthesis since early morning. I needed a break, so I walked out in the forest behind the house where I lived at the time. I was thinking about the utter impossibility of really communicating anything with words. What slippery little beasts they are. I noticed the Christmas ferns growing in the leaves, more un-knowable even than other human lives. I thought about the time I’d seen one by the Trail in wet snow, so startlingly skeletal against the still-brown backdrop of leaves. Metaphors can give us a kind of comprehension, but what is the veiled shape behind their hinting? When I was in college, I had a chemistry professor who likened our understanding of molecules to a blind man examining an elephant. For things too large or too small, you can perceive only bits and pieces, and put the rest together by guesswork. It often seems to me that everything, eventually, falls in the category of the un-knowable if you follow it far enough.

I should record one more detail, a slightly mundane one, which I hope will not take the magic out of the poem. The last few lines were loosely inspired by the conclusion of a student’s lab report: “the experimental and control setups both did and did not have effects on both groups of plants.” In case any of my students are reading this, don’t ever write like that! The rest of the lab report, written in a similarly circumspect and informationless style, was a chore to wade through. But I am oddly, obscurely grateful for that one sentence.


At 9:00 PM, Anonymous Rob Johnston said...

Baron Wormser is a friend, and I'm 2/3 of the way through The Road Washes out. I'm moved by how he challenges me by making observations. And on the once blank back page I'm keeping a list of words new to me, to look up in my nether years, maybe.
I found you by Googling the book. A pleasant surprise. Another bright soul to reveal sense and wonder.

Rob Johnston
Albion Maine USA

At 6:21 PM, Blogger Susan said...

Thank you, Rob. It's an honor to be compared to Baron Wormser. I hope you enjoy the rest of the book, and the rest of my site as it unfolds. "To reveal sense and wonder" -- this is what I strive for in almost every aspect of my life. For the countless times I've fallen short of the mark, it is gratifying to know that I sometimes reach it.


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