Al and Hardy II (Notes for Al Stephens Project)

by jkatejohnston

Mr. Stephens told us that he was born a few years before Hardy died, so he and Hardy were contemporaries. (I didn’t know at the time how amused he was by that. I was so impressed by his seriousness back then that I didn’t realize how often he was amused.) He said that the change away from old local ways to industrial agriculture was one of Hardy’s subjects and that his own growing up happened during that change, so that he worked the fields with a horse and plow, and his younger brother drove the tractor.

The Fall Plowing Back Home

Young, and I burned the world away
Ahead of me, anywhere I went,
With my personal blaze.

Now the world is filling back in.
How I like the plain details,
Complete with shadows, in the low sunlight.

When did I empty? — it’s as quiet in here
As a cobweb furred with dust.
Let the harness on its peg

Harden, let the green build up
On the battered brass knobs of the hames.
This old manure scent is dry, and very fine.

Long blades of the afternoon
Slope in through the drop-siding,
Slit the dimness. The light wind

Of late afternoon carries clearly
The fly-buzz of a whole fleet
Of tractors, over the flat brown fields.

What can you even say? It’s great. He liked old words if they were plain working ones. (‘Hap’ was a favorite word and subject.) I had to look up ‘hames,’ of course: “two curved pieces of iron or wood forming or attached to the collar of a draft horse, to which the traces are attached.” It reminds me of a comment he wrote on a paper of mine. I’d written about Hardy’s The Oxen:

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so. 

Mr. Stephens wrote in the margin in tiny legible pencil: “There’s also a lot of affection expressed for the old outlook and local culture that nourished it. The ‘fancy’ is ‘fair.’ And note the old dialect words he uses—barton, coomb…” (ellipses in the original.)

I don’t want to draw some big comparison between Hardy and Al. They weren’t alike. Al loved Hardy, he recognized him. Al never would have used the word ‘hames’ unless it was the plain useful word for the thing he’d used himself. There’s no nostalgia here, no judgment of old and new ways. He knew how to be angry, and this poem isn’t that.

What I’m trying to get to, and it keeps slipping away, is the quiet in this poem, quiet inside the barn (he puts you there without naming the building) and quiet inside himself. So quiet you can hear a fly buzz, only here it’s the fly-buzz of a whole fleet of tractors.

‘Quiet’ is too tame a word. Mr. Stephens had this running-under-the surface intensity—in class, in his poems, always, so that when he used a word like ‘quiet,’ it wasn’t quiet.