'Look at a Dry Leaf'

Last week, I was asked by my friend John Wooding to select about 20 poems about the fall or harvest time to be displayed at the Harvest Festival of Mill City Grows in Lowell on October 13. Okay, I said, I’ll take a crack at this universal subject. The challenge was to get deeper than the popular sentiment about autumn with its familiar images of bright foliage and candy corn while avoiding work that is either deadly serious or lacking humor entirely. I looked for insight, keen observation, wit, emotion, and wisdom. I sent him a batch of poems by a variety of authors, from Robert Frost, Grace Paley, and Donald Hall to Basho and Li Po, as well as Rita Dove, Amy Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, Jack Kerouac, Karina Borowicz, Du Fu, Carl Sandburg, Sally Anderson, Bill Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, and Lucy Larcom.

John’s idea is to link the Harvest Festival to this month’s Jack Kerouac literary celebration in the city. The organization, one of the most vigorous in the city, has been linking its community gardening and food security programs to local activities. With the bunch of poems for John, I slipped in one of my own compositions, “Look at a Dry Leaf,” written in 1978. Below is the poem, a notebook draft, and notebook watercolor sketches of the season that I made around the same time.

Look at a Dry Leaf

A dry leaf is a physical map:

River beds are sap routes forking off a prime vein.

The underside is not printed, but the face is a bright

Terrain or scaly parchment resembling earth cracked by drought.

In one quadrant of this chart locate red hills, check another

For tracks of golden birch following tributaries south.

Like old maps, leaves curl and flake.

Oak is smooth brown leather. Wine skin of a maple buckles.

A year-old leaf pressed flat is a brittle dollar.

These small flags tell me: “Autumn. North. Good.”

The view northeast from Ledge Hill behind Merrill Lane, near Mammoth and Old Meadow roads, in Dracut, Mass., 1975.

The view northeast from Ledge Hill behind Merrill Lane, near Mammoth and Old Meadow roads, in Dracut, Mass., 1975.

The woods at Merrill Lane, Whitecliff Manor apartment complex, now Princeton Reserve, in Dracut, Mass., 1975.

The woods at Merrill Lane, Whitecliff Manor apartment complex, now Princeton Reserve, in Dracut, Mass., 1975.

Another view of the woods at Merrill Lane, Whitecliff Manor, now Princeton Reserve in Dracut, Mass., 1975.

Another view of the woods at Merrill Lane, Whitecliff Manor, now Princeton Reserve in Dracut, Mass., 1975.

Draft #11 of “Look at a Dry Leaf” in author’s notebook, January 1978.

Draft #11 of “Look at a Dry Leaf” in author’s notebook, January 1978.