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After the Rain 

Old poems

After the Rain 

Maria S. Mendes

 

After the Rain 

     The barbed-wire fences rust
As their cedar uprights blacken
After a night of rain. 
Some early, innocent lust
Gets me outdoors to smell
The teasle, the pelted bracken, 
The cold, mossed-over well, 
Rank with its iron chain, 


    And takes me off for a stroll. 
Wetness has taken over. 
From drain and creeper twine
It’s runnelled and trenched and edged
A pebbled serpentine
Secretly, as though pledged
To attain a difficult goal
And join some important river. 


    The air is a smear of ashes
With a cool taste of coins. 
Stiff among misty washes, 
The trees are as black as wicks, 
Silent, detached and old. 
A pallor undermines
Some damp and swollen sticks. 
The woods are rich with mould. 


    How even and pure this light! 
All things stand on their own, 
Equal and shadowless, 
In a world gone pale and neuter, 
Yet riddled with fresh delight. 
The heart of every stone
Conceals a toad, and the grass
Shines with a douse of pewter. 


    Somewhere a branch rustles
With the life of squirrels or birds, 
Some life that is quick and right. 
This queer, delicious bareness, 
This plain, uniform light, 
In which both elms and thistles, 
Grass, boulders, even words, 
Speak for a Spartan fairness, 

 

  Might, as I think it over, 
Speak in a form of signs, 
If only one could know
All of its hidden tricks, 
Saying that I must go
With a cool taste of coins
To join some important river, 
Some damp and swollen Styx. 


    Yet what puzzles me the most
Is my unwavering taste
For these dim, weathery ghosts, 
And how, from the very first, 
An early, innocent lust
Delighted in such wastes, 
Sought with a reckless thirst
A light so pure and just.

 

Anthony Hecht, “After the Rain”, The New Yorker, September 9, 1972. 

 

At the Palm Beach Poetry Festival there is always a panel on Beloved Poems. Each faculty poet explains why his or her chosen poem is a personal favourite. Carl Phillips discussed “To the Harbormaster” by Frank O’Hara, and Rodney Jones “Race” by Elizabeth Alexander. Their choices especially mattered to me because I participated in their workshops. Terrance Hayes discussed Yusef Kumunyakaa’s “My Father’s Love Letters” in the light of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” and introduced me to a stunning literary affiliation. Perhaps “belovedness” inspires a compelling response. I hope so, because that sentiment defines my feelings about Anthony Hecht’s “After the Rain.”

Still, I wonder, how can I analyzethis poem in a way that does justice to its beauties of form and depths of resonance? Hecht’s mood music chords of meaning and sentiment that make me feel dignity and value in human nature and the world as we find them. I am grateful to share such feelings, via Hecht’s gentle reminder of their reality, and hope to identify felicities of this lyric clearly enough to give them their due. 

The poem describes the look of ordinary country things in the light of the sun after rain has cleared the air. At such a moment flora and fauna, a fence, and runoff water evolve into an allegory of the speaker’s moral life and aspirations. Hecht’s observations amount to the groundwork of a metaphysics of morals in seven rhymed octaves of iambic trimeter. But who would want to say something like that in the face of this poem’s plainspoken clarity? It acknowledges human finitude and embraces our condition as though it were a habitat where justice and hope could make themselves at home.

Hecht’s diction and rhymes display imaginative precision and pertinence that resonates with worlds elsewhere — Spartans, the River Styx, a cool taste of coins — deepening our sense of what’s near at hand. The specificity of teasle, bracken, and thistle — as both words and things — describes a landscape that resists becoming an inscape too easily, the way things of this world stand for nothing more than themselves. The stubbornness of such realities reminds us who is reallyin need of a change. It may help us recover our bearings by rediscovering nothing newer than the Self we may have forgotten or abandoned — “this primary wisdom,” in Emerson’s terms, “the last fact behind which analysis cannot go.”

Beyond diction and rhyme, rhythm and meter operate to musical and meaningful effect. They do so best in tension with one another, say, at the level of the line, when an anapest substitutes for an iamb in the second foot of this verse — It’s runnelled and trenched and edged — followed by the regularity of the next — A pebbled serpentine — and the trochee in the first foot of the next — Secretly, as though pledged

In Hecht’s short, tightly rhymed lines, such rhythmic effects occur strikingly at the level of the sentence. The first line in the second octave completes a sentence that began five lines earlier. Such periodicity dramatically postpones finality until it runs into the next octave. What a contrast to lines of a single sentence that end the third stanza and begin the fourth! Despite paying all its dues of stanza, rhyme, and meter, Hecht’s tightly controlled syntax soon breaks its bonds. A thirteen-line sentence linking two octaves together precedes the final octave, which is a single sentence. There are rules and forms, and there is the dance. Or is it the dancer, who strays from strict observance? Then the prodigal returns to a welcome homecoming of sound and sense.

Larry Rhu


Larry Rhu teaches at the University of South Carolina and author of Stanley Cavell’s American Dream, among other books.