Climbing in the mist I came to a terrace wall
and saw above it a small field of broad beans in flower
their white fragrance was flowing through the first light
of morning there a little way up the mountain
where I had made my way through the olive groves
and under the blossoming boughs of the almonds
above the old hut of the charcoal burner
where suddenly the scent of the bean flowers found me
and as I took the next step I heard
the creak of the harness and the mule’s shod hooves
striking stones in the furrow and then the low voice
of the man talking softly praising the mule
as he walked behind through the cloud in his white shirt
along the row and between his own words
he was singing under his breath a few phrases
at a time of the same song singing it
to his mule it seemed as I listened
watching their breaths and not understanding a word
I like this poem because apparently there is nothing going on in it. What first attracted me was the masterful naming of the flora — one of the “tricks” writers use, as someone said —, something that seduces and invites awe because it certifies specialized knowledge on a part of the world. This naming gives us the space and time coordinates of the moment the poem describes: “Alba”, the title, is neither just a reference to sunrise (already clearly stated in the third and fourth lines), nor does it point solely to the mist that frequently takes place at that time of the day, especially in higher grounds, as is the case here; “Alba” is also the name of a comune in Piedmont, in the north of Italy (which I found out in this sharp-tongued piece of writing). With this information in our possession, the beans, the olive groves, the charcoal burner’s hut, the almond trees, and even the appearance of the man with the mule become invested with an obvious and ordinary meaning. Because the broad beans and the almond trees are blossoming, we know when the events take place: almond trees only blossom in late January or early February. Regarding broad beans, the matters get trickier, if the beans were planted in the more favourable season, October/November, they can be harvested in May, but I was not able to gather whether it would be possible for the broad beans to blossom at the same time as the almond trees (the poem gives the illusion that some of the specialized knowledge the poet exhibits rubs off on us, but coming across these setbacks, we know it is not so).
There are other sets of tricks in this poem: the absence of punctuation, sentences that pour from one line to another (thus acquiring ambiguous meanings), giving colours to smells (the white fragrance of the broad beans in flower), conferring agency to things that have none (it was the scent of the broad beans in flower that found the poet, not the other way around), and finally, a crucial one, putting on airs of a factual description — in addition to the naming of the flora, there is the minute description of the mule’s shod hooves’s sounds, of the colour of the man’s shirt, and of both their breaths. The “there” in the fourth line reads almost inconspicuously, but it assures us that this promenade actually took place “there”, as if the poet was pointing to a real place and telling us what happened over there.
In the end, what we get is the picturesque image of a bucolic morning, which gives the impression of existing by itself due to the natural, common, elements that are a part of its composition — as if it all was already a poem only waiting to be put into words, one that Merwin caught. Nevertheless, that “there” is not just a marker of factuality. It also creates a distance between what was supposedly experienced and the written words, and assures us, together with the aforementioned tricks, that the moment is a fabrication because the poem is a fabrication. Poems are not waiting to be caught, what may well account for the fact that the poet cannot understand the words the man sings to the mule. Poems are made, using more or less tricks, even when it seems that nothing, or nothing much, is going on — this being the greatest trick of all.
Helena Carneiro completed her Master at the Program in Literary Theory (University of Lisbon). She works as a redactor and as an editorial assistant at Imprensa da Universidade de Lisboa. She is also the editor of the arts review’s section of the online magazine Forma de Vida. People in her life have explained poetry to her. And she does enjoy Phillip Larkin, who, in his tombstone, has described himself as a “writer”.