Al and Hardy (Notes for Al Stephens Project)

by jkatejohnston

In the Hardy class, Mr. Stephens told us that on the farm where he grew up they had almost no books, but one they did have was Far From the Madding Crowd, only he thought it was Far From the Maddening Crowd.

Here’s something I remember him reading to us in class:

Gabriel proceeded toward his home. In approaching the door, his toe kicked something which felt and sounded soft, leathery and distended, like a boxing glove. It was a large toad humbly travelling across the path. Oak took it up, thinking it might be better to kill the creature to save it from pain; but finding it uninjured, he placed it again among the grass.  (Far From The Madding Crowd, about halfway through chapter 36.)

Mr. Stephens said that the toad was as present in that scene as Gabriel Oak. He said that animals in Hardy were themselves. They didn’t mean anything else, they weren’t symbols. And that Hardy had attention for them, just as they were.

Al was the same way.

Various Presences
Coming back to the house through the dark
I see a flashlight come on
at the dark window of Tim’s room —
as I enter he trains it on me
and greets me.

He has climbed out of his bed
to look at some tomato worms again
which he put in a can today with fresh tomato leaves
fragrant with the scent
of tomatoes themselves —
he explains: he could hear the worms
chewing the leaves in the dark,
he imitates the sound for me,
a slight sucking sound.

The broad scars or scabs
on tomatoes are made, I suppose,
by these worms. We sit a moment
watching them in the flashlight beam.

Big fellows, a clear, light green,
built high and rectangular
like boxcars, and with a thorn
like a rose thorn set in their hind ends;
on their flanks are stripes,
diagonal, crooked, black with white edging;
between each stripe is an imitation eye —
we look at it, it looks back at us,
a clear black pupil
rimmed with a delicate white tissue
that makes the eye appear to glisten
with moisture. The expression, we decide,
is that level, considering regard
you meet in the eye of a toad
or a lizard.
—Alan Stephens, Selected Poems, page 32,

Boxcars. How accurate and surprising. And I bet almost every kid has done that—brought an insect inside and set up a makeshift habitat. I don’t remember doing it, but Enzo, about to be seven, has done it many times. It’s fresh and familiar.