Begin Afresh, Afresh! Poems of Spring by Larkin and Limón


American poet Ada Limón. Photo credit: San Marcos Mercury

Instructions on Not Giving Up

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

Ada Limón from Poem-a-Day, the Academy of American Poets, May 15, 2017

Ah, spring. A late one here in the Cowichan Valley but spring nonetheless. So many spring poems it’s hard to write one that seems fresh and unexpected. After all, Spring and All, the 1923 book and poem by William Carlos Williams are looming presences still, after almost one hundred years.

And yet, Ada Limón has pulled off a cliché-busting spring poem. And its intrigue for me begins with the title, no spring in sight! Limón, who just turned forty-two, has become a rising force in American poetics after her 2015 book Bright Dead Things was a finalist for two of the top U.S. poetry awards.

Just try reading the first lines of Limón’s poem out loud. It’s not easy. Challenging line breaks that create a sense of disorientation, a breaking of regular rhythms, that reflect the confusion and disorientation suggested by the poem’s title: Instructions on Not Giving Up. And the disruption that spring is!

And how in the poem Limón mixes showing and telling in such a robust way! As she does here:..Patient, plodding, a green skin/ growing over whatever winter did to us, a return/ to the strange idea of continuous living despite/ the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,/ I’ll take it, the tree seems to say…

And I am struck by how it is the coming of the slow green leaves that gets to Limón. Not the showy, gaudy blossoms, the world’s baubles and trinkets. And in this I am reminded of Jack Gilberts’s astonishing poem, The Abnormal is not Courage. His line that echoes her thoughts: It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment. Ah, the long less showy accomplishment of leaves. And as Limón says: More than the fuschia funnels breaking out/ of the crabapple tree…

And Limón’s poem took me back to another striking spring poem. Phillip Larkin’s The Trees. The poetry of Larkin, a celebrated English poet, novelist and librarian who turned down the post of Poet Laureate in 1984, still remains oft-quote today. No wonder, I think. His poems have a quiet and understated power in them. Not showy but accomplished. lots to chew over in them.

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Phillip Larkin from Collected Poems, Faber & Faber 1993

English poet Phillip Larkin. Photo credit: Fay Godwin 1970

What a line: their greenness is a kind of grief. They seem to say they are new but we know the tree they come from, grows older, written down in rings of grain. We know we age. Our grief. But we also know they die, too. More grief.

All this conflab, the argument, in the poem is discarded when Larkin states: Yet still… and he, as poet and narrator, chooses to see the life and hope in the green leaves. Not grief. Last year is dead they seem to say,/ Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

What hope. I am aging, almost sixty-seven but as of this writing, not dead yet! And Larkin, hallelujah, exclaims to me: Begin afresh, afresh, afresh. And with each blog post I write I say yes to him, I say yes to life as long as I have it.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *