Raking Leaves (poem & comment)

A Poem & A Comment

(for MGP)

The Aborigines paint the inside of things
I’m raking leaves
What would they do with the leaves
Just the veins

I’m raking leaves with my son
He’s usually distant, now he’s near
The Aborigines live in dreamtime
Just underground

I’m raking the November leaves
He bags; I rake. He rakes; I bag
I rake, and think of a W.S. Merwin poem
Just the images

Like kites that won’t come down
Like kites you don’t want to come down
What would the Aborigines do with a kite
Just the frame

My son and I don’t speak
We rake the leaves
What would the Aborigines do with us
Just the shame

  • published in Kairos, 1994

The bare facts? My son Daniel and I really were raking leaves in November, raking the fallen maple, cottonwood and oak leaves in our backyard along with pine cones and cedar sheddings. The day was brisk but sunny and we worked, at least for me, in a comfortable silence. He was about 16 at the time.

I had just read a poem by Marilyn Gear Pilling in which an image of a father taking a turn for the worse in a hospital bed was juxtaposed with an image of a father taking a turn towards the shallows in a boat. From the conjoining of her images, bed and boat, I began to gestate a thought that two dissimilar things might be superimposed on each other to illuminate a feeling. So, in my own poem, I flirted with the idea of intermeshing the raking of leaves with Australian Aboriginal art. Aboriginal “x-ray” art becomes a way of seeing into the ceremony of raking leaves, and into the relationship of the father and son.

Some of the lines have personal resonance. The reference to a Merwin poem, for example, had to do with Cheryl and I reading that poet’s “In The Night Fields” and trying to unravel his poem. We happily left well enough alone, believing that the poem was strong enough to withstand any of our assaults on its being. I might also have had Leonard Cohen’s “The Kite As Victim” in the back of my mind in constructing the kite image.

I like the poem because it led to other things. Since its composition, I’ve written a long poem in which an extended analogy between the Ghost Dance of the Sioux at Wounded Knee and the origins of language plays itself out.

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