The orchard

Disinterested, almost dazed, I look both ways: nothing moving up or down the road. With one jack like a rabbit, I jump the rain ditch, hoist one foot up, and clear the fence with a second elegant leap. Quick but quiet, into the disguise of the apple orchard where, to a passer-by, red hair and light eyes will be only that much more fruit. A perfect rainy day - chill-brilliant and

sheathed in clouds, like some birthday parcel, picked out special, crisp, wrapped, set out on a table. The wet grass soaks through my shoes, strings cold anklets of dew on each sock. And the sky's restless complexion: first lead, then pewter, then pearl-blue with the sun's patch of copper. Against the mist, each green, each brown is rich and particular like women in Sunday dresses.

And the apples... As far as the eye ranges, apples light in the branches: like lanterns, like Chinese medallions, like

blood pearls - a treasure worth fighting for. Or stealing. Cautious as the deer who come at night to pick the lowest branches, I move between the trees, choosing my prey. With ten thousand thousand gems to assay, which to select? This: a pendulous McIntosh, sap-heavy on the bough, globular and green-marked like the teacher's Mercator. I look up and down the aisle: no farmer's hand out to collect stray burlap sacks; no farmer's dog wandering after the perfume of pheasant or quail; no eyes to measure my delicious guilt. The first bite cracks and crackles like a rifle shot in autumn. The floodgates burst and the apple-sugar tides across the tongue, tart and sweet all at once. No fruit, on no September rain-blessed day ever tasted as good.

Autumn, I guess, is the hunger in us, the last run of fortune before winter catches hold. For a moment it leaves me dazed with greed, half-crazed by the infinity of red fruit crowding all the limbs, hiding beneath the green skirts, bobbing around my head. Into my shirt, one, two, five, six smooth red-cheeked apples, cold and rain-washed, before I turn tail and make for the road, one hand clutching closed my shirt, one fist for my apple, running, laughing as I run, as my short breaths smoke into the wind. One leap for the fence, one to cross the ditch, and I'm back on the road again, blank-faced and bored like some traveling salesman, poised and completely innocent. Reluctantly, the laughter drains from my limbs, only a delightful ache left in the knees. ``A blamed fool!'' yes, I know it myself. Still, you must admit: pretty spry for a man of fifty stealing apples from his own trees.

A continuing series in which poets comment on their poems. COMMENT:

I'd just awakened, and I could see them: a profusion of red McIntosh, crowding the branches, some of them in pairs dangling chin to chin on a stem. Just sitting up in bed, and already I could smell October - even though I knew full well the month was June; I could hear crisp leaves and feel the furtive exhilaration as I began to lope between the apple trees.

This is one of the reasons ``The Orchard'' is a favorite of mine. Though it contains only a small shred of personal fact, it emerged in a rush one morning before I'd even gotten out of bed as if it were pure autobiography. As the scribbled monologue appeared on the page, it both lured and dared me into pursuit. It was apparent the poem, if not the poet, was sure of its way.

In a narrative poem such as this one, a large fictional terrain is compressed like anthracite into its hard essential core. I've always loved the way you are coaxed into inventing the whole landscape from these brief glimpses, are almost compelled to bring the material of your own life and imagination to substantiate the dramatic unfolding. I learned the power of this style of poetry when I was young and an enthusiastic reader of Robert Frost's work. If there was any doubt that I am indebted to Frost's own ``apple picking,'' his pondering of age and expectation, I intentionally tip my hat to the master with the borrowed phrase ``ten thousand thousand'' in reference to the fruit. The important thing for the reader to keep in mind is this: Poetry comes into being, not in the lines themselves, but in the resonance between word and response - and the narrative poem invites one of the broadest and most pleasurable creative partnerships between the writer's and reader's imagination.

``The Orchard'' is one of the poems I most enjoy performing at readings, because it offers so much sensation to the mouth and the ear, and because in fact that music, that combination of sound and rhythm, conveys almost as much of the poem's purpose as the images do.

It was, in fact, the musical texture of the poem that I relied upon as a guide when I wrote my way into and out of the apple grove. If the feel of the poem takes hold of you, a variety of possibilities will suddenly open, and both the risk and the pleasure involved will require no further analysis.

At a time when we are the targets of an endless bombardment of the most seductive media money can buy, the reading of a poem is an opportunity for several minutes of privacy within the quiet landscape of the self. For me, it is the place where questions and possibilities assume the power and particularity of actions. So I want to take care not to offer too many of my understandings and opinions about ``The Orchard'' for fear that, if I do, you will never quite be able to wander through this fruit grove free and unencumbered. A small red treasure - that is what the poem is after here - one that, a moment earlier, didn't even show up in our field of vision, but now is powerful, alluring, and within our reach.

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