“All the leaves are brown” is impossible to say without lilting into the melody of “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas and the Papas. It’s a song about being homesick for L.A., where it’s “safe and warm” compared to the New York winter. There are sounds my brain can’t work out; I can’t reduce this song to the sum of its parts, but I think their sadness is in its harmonies, the accidental A minor chords, and the alto flute, breathy, flightily slipping between notes, but subverting our flute-ful expectations with its low register melancholy; it sounds like nights drawing in and stew on the stove.
I can hear the cusp of autumn and winter – I recognize the minor chords, but I don’t experience them as sadness, sad as they are. Much of my childhood narrative is knee-deep in knitwear and all shades of bronze (the leaves are not all brown). Summer memories have merged into one long blond day, with everything on hold, too hot for movement; I hear change in those autumnal harmonies, and as I walk along the river this month, I can’t help singing along, mostly in my head, though some bits slip out. I do this every year, as is the way with the Earth’s seasonal tilt.
To affect any real sorrow through the seasons we have to lose sight of the cyclical patterns of renewal, and superimpose the linear passage of human time. Emily Bronte’s “Fall, Leaves, Fall” does this through its ambivalence:
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.
There’s tension between the surface, the smile and the bliss, and the undercurrent of “wreath”, “decay”, the normative “rose should grow”. It’d be ok to give the rose the winter off; seasons allow for this, but Bronte doesn’t. The rose “should” grow. Summer has been usurped, rather than merely giving way to autumn, and “the drearier day” ushered in through the lengthening night is an ending, it’s permanent. So why is she looking forward to it? I think that’s in her body of work, rather than in the poem – the question is more important than the answer.
So how do we negotiate our single, linear life against a backdrop of revolution? November 2012, I walk past a bench overlooking the river. It’s inscribed: One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. It’s gone a sort of mud-moss-green, rain-soft and rickety. Something black and wet is growing, filling-out the gouged-wood lettering. I sit and watch the water. The bench is in memory of a man who died in 1995, but I know him from this view, the stream high and mighty today, the weekend’s storm carving its way through the earth to low ground and the stone weirs stepping it down towards town; from the trees towering behind me, the pair of blue tits dipping between branches. And all these leaves. As I walk deeper into the woods, I see they’re everywhere different, and realize I don’t know an oak leaf from a sycamore. I start collecting the less sodden shapes, tracing their various outlines against my palm, take five-point-stars and teardrops home, so I can learn their names. I did this, and am better (though not great) at recognizing trees by their leaf because of this stranger, who must have known them all… Actually, when I passed the bench again, I noticed the man was born in 1962; he was much younger than I’d imagined, and it then seemed likely the man in my head was there already.
I’d like to say that when I’d written the first draft of “The Bench”, I took the dead bronze slop of leaves back to the woods, so it could fuel the next generation. But I won’t lie. I am thinking of starting a compost heap, however.
‘The Bench’ appears in The Strait, a sequence of poems by Angelina Ayers included in The Footing. Listen to Angelina Ayers reading ‘The Bench’ on location below: