Kensington Garden looks tired. So much purple, lavender and violet. Intimations of mourning. I travel to Oxford. A sign at the gate to the university botanical gardens warns me that the gardens are past their prime, but I should make time for the succulents. The succulents are worth the trip. Their fleshy reserves sustain them. They look good, but yet again, their color hints at morbidity.
It looks like fall… feels like fall. Even with the warm days and the sun on my face, I want to turn my head and look over my shoulder. Fall breathes down my neck. I wrap my arms around me to ward off the chill.
Poetry will save me. I turn to the Poetry Foundation website. A poem or two will lift me. I’m in luck. The editors have selected a number of fall poems for my consideration. I choose my favorites:
- “November Night” by Adelaide Crapsey: Listen / with faint dry sound…
- “The Beautiful Change” by Richard Wilbur: One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides, / The Queen Anne’s Lace lying like lilies…
- Or my favorite, just the first line from “Autumn” by Adam Zagajewski: Autumn is always too early…
Each and every poem dovetails to my elegiac mood.
Then I come to a rollicking poem by James Whitcomb Riley: When the frost is on the Punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,/ And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock…
And I’m taken back. I’m sitting in my father’s lap. His arms embrace me. His hands hold a book. We read and rock. His expressive Welsh voice swings in rhythm with the rocking chair and the narrative lyrics of Riley and Longfellow and Robert Service.
My favorite was always “Little Orphan Annie.” Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn’t say his prayers, / An’ when he went to bed at night way up-stairs, / His manny heerd him holler, and his daddy heerd him bawl, / An’ when they turn’ the kivvers down, he wuzn’t there at all.
Stanza after stanza, each followed by the chilling refrain: An the Gobble-uns ‘ll get you / Ef you / Don’t / Watch / Out!
I loved it. Even knowing the outcome, I loved the anticipation that built to a climax.
Which now, looking back some sixty years, I have to wonder why I loved the Riley poem and my nightly prayers (beginning with the 23rd Psalm, followed by The Lord’s Prayer, and concluding with “Now I lay me down to sleep”) scared me out of my wits. I used to lie awake… waiting…
Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the Lord my soul to keep. / If I should die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take.
What if I died? What if I died before I woke? I needed to stay awake: that was the trick.
Use a nighttime childhood memory as a prompt. Possibilities might include storytime, prayers, lack of prayers, nighttime fears, security blankets/stuffed animals, or incantations against the monsters in the dark.