Poem of the week: Leaf Color by William Logan

Leaf Color

A steely torn silver, rusted along the edges;
the faint acidic yellow, like the backwash
of a polluted pond; earth-spatter

and gold spot in blotchy shallows;
grays the purpling of drenched slate;
and a pooling crimson with the false

bonhomie of the maraschino cherry –
all that unnecessary life turning to tinder.
The shadows were fragile-fertile

beyond the shocks of grimy hay in a spent field.
The India-ink, closeted blacks –
why choose the easeful darks?

Not that anything lay hidden there.
Was it only the spilled-over, abandoned life
and, from the wastage, the broken buds?

This week’s poem comes from Wiliam Logan’s recent collection, Rift of Light. There is no title poem, but Leaf Color is one among a number of pieces informed by a sharp sense of the rifts that may occur in light or shadow. The ambiguity inherent in the term is neatly exposed in the two epigraphs chosen for the collection. George Gissing, in the novel New Grub Street, sees, with perhaps uncharacteristic optimism, the “rift of light to the clouds in the west” as a possible portent of “a rich ending” to the day. On the other hand, William Ingraham Russell laments in The Romance and Tragedy of a Widely Known Business Man of New York that such a rift is “alas! only to be followed by greater darkness”.

A widely known poet-critic, Logan was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and currently lives in Gainesville, Florida, and Cambridge, England. His impressionistic autumn scene has no declared location, and does not need one. We are in a landscape vividly real and visible, but also symbolic, a little hellish pastoral towards the end of time.

In the opening tercets, different species of leaves are carefully coloured in. The colours are redolent of corruption through the analogies implied by such terms as “rusted” and “acidic”, and the reference to “the backwash of a polluted pond”. The placing of the “gold spot in blotchy shallows” succeeds in making the “gold spot” into a blemish, a mark of infection. The shocking simile, though, is the “pooling crimson with the false // bonhomie of the maraschino cherry”. It’s a brief incursion into human ridiculousness and elaboration. We find our own species entangled in the tragicomedy of “all that unnecessary life turning to tinder”. Similarly, we’ll find ourselves inculpated at the end of the poem and the edge of the landscape.

At this point, a “turn” is marked: the vista lengthens, and the past tense comes as a stern but forlorn surprise in the following, beautifully timed and sounded, two lines: “The shadows were fragile-fertile // beyond the shocks of grimy hay in a spent field.”

The varied depths of darkness acquired by shadows in a parched landscape register through the para-rhyme of “blacks” and “darks”. But the attraction of the shadows and the druggy escape they offer (also connected to the maraschino cherry floating in the cocktail, perhaps) is resisted. The answer to the question, with its Keatsian echo of easeful death, “why choose the easeful darks?”, is drily deflected. The poem denies significance to the shadows of the wasteland beyond the “spent field” – “Not that anything lay hidden there”.

However, the final two lines pose a further question about what might or might not be hidden in the shadows. There’s a suggestion of bad agricultural practice, the unnecessary destruction of viable crops. But the imagery heralded by the question “Was it only …” extends the idea of wastage to laying waste: “spilled-over, abandoned life” and “broken buds” seem metaphorically to fuse the local destruction with that of a bigger environment.

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