Poetry Friday: Exhaustion

It has been a long week—perhaps the longest week in a while.  Between assignments (and professors moving up due dates arbitrarily) and job applications (and fretting about job applications) and volunteer commitments (and trying to avoid racking up more volunteer commitments) I feel exhausted.  And when I feel exhausted, mentally and physically, there are only so many poets I want to spend time with.  At the top of that list is the incomparable Robert Frost, a poet too over-rated by the average American to be appreciated for who he really was, a poet too pigeonholed into the greeting-card simplicity of “two roads” and “good fences make good neighbors” by too many people who haven’t read a lot of what I think of as his best stuff (though “Mending Wall” is, to be fair, a really good poem).  Anyway, I went to him this Friday for a poem about exhaustion, and found an old friend: “After Apple-Picking”

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing dear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

So much here enthralls me. There’s a lot of imagery here that my first poetry professor, Dennis Peters, would tie to death—specifically Frost’s morbid longing for it. And that may be true…we start, after all, at a ladder to Heaven. But I’m more drawn in by how weariness pervades the poem, and how wryly happy it makes him. There’s a satisfaction in saying “but I am done with apple-picking now”. His body has made a call that his mind is relieved by. Him looking at the world through the haze of ice skimmed from a trough is such a great image, and for me (if not others) I think I am in 1 Corinthians, the 13th chapter, where Paul talks about seeing “as through a glass darkly”. And I wonder what it means that he is falling into sleep even as the ice falls from his hand—that’s a phrase that’s usually so cliche as to be unremarkable (“fall asleep”) but here I feel as though he is physically falling into or out of something. The end of the poem is too sublime for me to even get into: if you’ve never heard the poem aloud, read it to yourself (the whole thing—it’s worth it). No one’s listening, I promise. There is a beauty to his uncertainty, to the drift of his voice as he leaves his body and a world of work for a sleep whose nature he doesn’t understand. In a strange way the world outside him, even the wordless world of an animal like a woodchuck, perceives the truth about this moment in a way he cannot. I think I, too, am tired like the apple-picker and rambling, so I’ll leave off here and see if some of you will offer your thoughts too.

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