Odd Orchard: Thinking about “After Apple Picking”
by Sara Fetherolf

When I run the track around Prospect Park, or wait for the coffee to brew, or brush my hair, or walk home in the dark, I recite “After Apple Picking” to myself, and again when I sit down to write a poem, and again when I can’t sleep. It is a good manifesto for perfectionists. But I am done with apple-picking now, I say to myself when I’ve rewritten a line five times and it is less right than it was to begin with. There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, / Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall. There were. But I am done now. It seems to me the poem is about touching each instant, cradling it against the palm like a first fruit, and then letting go. Cherish: a miser’s word, something you do with a precious thing. It’s an impractical way to approach apple-picking, especially when the fruit’s so bountiful there will be unpicked apples left on the bough in the winter night. Cherish: a sentimental word for what you do with dear things, with memories.

We are going to have a farm someday, my partner and I tell each other. It will be somewhere near mountains (for his sake) and the ocean (mine). We will have plots of vegetables, a goat, a few chickens, a little orchard, an acre of woods and a stream. Stop talking about the farm, I told him at the beginning of November. I can’t stand it anymore, talking about futures that are never going to happen. I can’t stand wanting it to be real.

My depression comes in long cycles; as I get further away from childhood trauma, it ebbs—softer, infrequent, a low tide. But sometimes it still strikes hard, and then I have to be a creature of tricks and rituals, a sort of self-exorcist, sipping tea-with-lemon like it’s holy water, chanting memorized poems like they’re psalms against destruction. I cherish the words in my mouth, the hot sips; I go to bed early; I run and run and try to ignore the fear of what’s coming.

Robert Frost was not a very good farmer. I probably wouldn’t be either. Frost’s first farm was a gift from his father-in-law, bequeathed with the condition he had to live there 10 years before he owned it free-and-clear. Frost sold the place as soon as it became all his. Later he said he liked farming because he was “interested in solitude and in the preservation of the individual.”[1] Maybe that’s why I want to farm, too. Like Frost, I largely grew up in cities. A farm promises solitude and a certain independence. “‘Fill your cellar and fill your larder,’” Frost once advised, “so that you can go into the siege of winter with zest. Go to the cellar stairs; look at the preparations for winter. Smell the apples. Have a good cellar. That is a part of the good life.”[2]

I’ve been told I inherited my grandmother’s green thumb. But she grew succulents, which are easy, evergreen, and yield no harvest. I have three of her plants hanging in my windows now: huge gnarled Christmas cacti, older than me. They are beginning to bloom with scrawny deep red flowers. My uncle brought them here one day. He is dismantling my grandparents’ house upstate, giving away what might be wanted and getting rid of the rest. He brings me books and succulents. Here in Brooklyn, I have my own odd orchard.

It is almost winter, and I am not going under siege with zest. I have midnight crying jags. I am always cold. If only I had a good cellar. But I’m suspicious of Frost, who sold the farm and moved overseas before he wrote North of Boston. At the time of publication, the rural New Hampshire life depicted in the book was far away across the Atlantic. And I suspect he liked playing the role of the wise farmer more than actually living on the farm. After all, “After Apple-Picking” is one of the few moments of solitude in North of Boston. It is a stray lyric in a book of conversations.

And it is a pure lyric, all happening internally, in the space of an instant. From the first line, we are in a moment of half-doneness. My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still. Still. The lines are iambic; they land hard on that word. Still. The ladder stands waiting in the winter night. The poem goes on to describe the unfilled barrel beside it, and admits there may be two or three / Apples I didn’t pick. It is a moment of stasis, harvest left incomplete. Or is it? The sixth line rounds out the opening lines with an opposite assertion: But I am done with apple-picking now. Thud.

Then the poem basically starts over. The scene is set again: Essence of winter sleep is on the night, / The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. This time the speaker is less talky, less concerned with things he didn’t do. Instead, he gives us prettiness—essence is such a perfumey word, and there’s a fullness to the sound of scent of apples, with the swishy s and exhale of the short e at the start and end the phrase. It’s lulling. We start to believe the speaker; he really is done with apple-picking, drowsing after a full day’s work. This is what you’d expect from a man who advocates popping down to the cellar to smell the apples whenever winter gets you down. Good old Farmer Frost, drowsing off in his solitude.

Then comes the strangeness. Or rather, the speaker calls on the strangeness that has been there all along:

I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.

At first, it’s just as hard for me, the reader, to see past the strangeness of the metaphor and parse what’s going on. The speaker talks about looking through a pane of glass and I take it literally. Only after the next line do I realize the glass is really a sheet of ice that formed over the drinking trough. Distracted by the backward logic, it’s hard to notice that something strange is beginning to happen with time as well. The same line that reveals the glass is really ice also reveals this all happened this morning. The speaker has had a full day of apple-picking between then and now, but still can’t rub away the strange, distorted world he saw for a moment at the beginning of this day—even though the ice-glass was short-lived: It melted, and I let it fall and break. It’s odd that the ice both melted and that the speaker let it fall. There’s something going on with the duality of man-made and natural things. The ice created by winter is conflated not just with glass but with a pane—something specifically cut to shape by a human. And at its moment of destruction, it is unclear whether the ice is lost naturally, or whether the speaker lets it happen.

Either way, the ice-glass breaks, and time gets even funnier:

But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.

This poem has strangeness built into its form. Built like a Cowleyan ode, the lines are end-rhymed, but the placement of rhymes is particularly unpredictable, even for this form. End-words sometimes call back to one another across large sections of the poem, while other times they snuggle up in couplets. Each line pairs up with a rhyme, but this is the only point in the poem where there’s a threesome of end-rhymes in a row. I have a suspicion Frost did this partly to indicate that the unsteady verb tenses are not here for the sake of form. It would work just as well if the poem read: But I am well / Upon my way to sleep before it falls, and I can tell…. It’s not as good—it doesn’t have the same effect as the three short lines, which speed the pace so it feels like we are falling along with the ice, deep into the speaker’s dreaming as it forms. Still, my point is there’s no formal need for the disorienting temporal shift. These lines could be cast in the present tense, so the poem reads as if the speaker is reflecting on the scene from this morning (which would stay in the past tense) as he drowses off.

Instead, it reads as if the speaker has been well on his way to sleep all day, that even before this morning’s drinking trough incident, he could tell his dreams would be full of magnified apples. Inside the instant the speaker drowses off, he is like the ladder sticking through a tree toward heaven. He is between worlds. In this expanded moment of not-quite-sleep, time folds back on itself. The apples he has picked zoom into being again, magnified. The speaker experiences the whole day in one instant, but he also moves into and out of individual moments. He experiences the magnified dream-apples the same way—they are no longer whole fruit but anatomized parts: Stem end and blossom end, / And every fleck of russet showing clear. The speaker’s own experience of his body is anatomized, too: My instep arch not only keeps the ache, / It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round. Not only is he intensely specific about what part of his foot is sore, but also exactly what sensations his foot keeps. The ache of a long day, the pressure of each single moment on the ladder.

And then—just like that–we’re on the other side, easy as Alice melting through her looking-glass:

I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.

No longer is the speaker straddling two worlds. Now, for a brief moment, he is back on the ladder—he feels it sway. He hears the sound of apples falling into the cellar bin. (Actually, he keeps hearing. There is something important in this idea of keeping.) Again, the tense shift marks a moment of temporal strangeness. We are in the present again—the day re-happens.

It’s over quickly. Suddenly the speaker is trying to wrap up:

For I’ve had too much
Of apple-picking: I’m overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.

To my ears, the lines are clownishly epigrammatic. This is Touchstone or Feste closing a scene. This is summary. It has the same finality as I am done with apple-picking now. It’s a satisfying little couplet to cap the poem. But the speaker isn’t satisfied. He launches right back into rumination: There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, / Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall. I love these lines, these perfectly whole, iambic pentameter things of beauty. I love the repetition of thousand, as if it’s inexpressible how many, but he’s determined to get as close as he can. I love the description of process; I love cherish. Each step matters, even the moment of stillness, apple in hand:

For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.

Why cherish? Because they go to the cider-apple heap otherwise. They are forgotten, no longer individual fruit (things of worth) but the anonymous loads rumbling toward the cellar bin. Do you see why this is a good manifesto for perfectionists? The speaker’s sleep is troubled not by his own overtired brain as he recalls each detail, but by what’s been forgotten—what he has let fall.

There’s that word again: let. This time it is negated, not an action the speaker allows, but one he wants to prevent. At the beginning of the poem, he chooses to let the pane of ice-glass fall and break (even though it would have melted anyway). But by now he is troubled by what he has let fall. He can’t sleep for what’s slipped away.

“Nature is a chaos. Humanity is a ruck,” Frost wrote in one of this private notebooks.[3] What interests me is how, in Frost’s conception, there is nothing individual about either nature or humanity. They are both raw material—“a chaos” or an undifferentiated heap. But the farmer is a solitary figure, an individual who has been preserved, away from the ruck. He can impose order. He decides what to cherish and what to let fall. At least that’s what Frost wants to believe. I see it in this poem, with all the business of letting and keeping. The speaker is working to order the world around him, and he’s troubled by his inability to do so. As he falls back into earlier parts of the day, I wonder if it is a man-made falling, created by his own need to control to the flow of time and keep what’s lost. Or else does time control him, the ice-window he can’t stop seeing through? He begins to ask something like this himself: is this rumination human, or natural, an animal instinct?

This is the business of poetry writing, isn’t it? We are famers; we are chaos-cherishers; we want to decide what’s important; we can’t. Of course I am constantly unsatisfied with the poems I write, even at the best of times. There’s only so much of this world we get to keep.

Depression is a two-faced beast. Frost understood that. Sometimes it feels like an old friend. More often it gets in the way. The act of wanting gets all twisted and altered when I am depressed. I don’t want anything anymore—except for the whole world all at once, please. I’m sick of everything, and I’m terrified of losing even one piece of it. I feel that emotional paradox at work in “After Apple Picking.” The speaker wants to cherish, to not let a single apple fall. He also wants to rub the strange day from his sight, to let it fall and break, to just go to sleep already. The apples haunt him, magnified. He likes it that way. But to keep each fruit cherished in hand, he also has to keep the ache and pressure of the ladder, and has to keep hearing the apples falling.

The woodchuck is a two-faced beast. Here he comes at the tail-end of the lyric, a sudden character inside the farmer’s reverie. He is gone before he gets there:

Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep as I describe its coming on.

The woodchuck is a dear old lost friend who could help the speaker untangle his human and animal natures. But the woodchuck has already gone off to his long sleep. Because it is Frost, and maybe because it is almost winter, it’s easy for me to assume he could mean the sleep of death, just as easily as seasonal hibernation. (In my head, I see the Long Sleep of the woodchuck capitalized, official—even though in the printed poem only Long is capitalized, presumably because it is the first word of the line.) Is the speaker, as he falls asleep, human or animal? Is he controlling his memories or is he ruled by them? Is it sleep or death that’s looming before him? The woodchuck could tell him, but the woodchuck is gone. And anyway, aren’t woodchucks bad for apple trees? Don’t farmers trap and kill them? Is the speaker mourning the death of a creature he himself destroyed?

When I re-read my grandmother’s copy of Mrs. Tiggywinkle this fall, I thought of that woodchuck. I’ve always been bothered by the last illustration: Mrs. Tiggywinkle is naked on all fours, a common hedgehog running up the hillside. There’s a panicked animal look on her face. How much of the story took place in little Lucy’s head? Suddenly it seems awkward—sinister, almost—to anthropomorphize the creatures of the farm and woodlands. They are not human. We clothe them in story, but in the real world they fear us. The woodchuck doesn’t speak, and he couldn’t say what his Long Sleep is like, really, even if he weren’t gone. The speaker will never know how human-or-not his sleep is, because he can’t let himself be anything but human, controlling the narrative, afraid to let go of the day that came before.

I was invited upstate one day in October, to see for myself if there was anything I would like to keep to remember my grandmother by. I took very little. Mostly I wanted the dead bee on the kitchen windowsill. My grandmother once had a whole collection of dead bees there, along with a tooth that had been extracted at the root, a dried flower in a miniature tea cup, and a few funny-colored pebbles. It seemed strange to me that these things still existed. The bee that she saved from a heap of sweepings because she thought it was curious. Worth keeping. How odd that it outlasted her. I walked through the rooms that were slowly being emptied: One can see what will trouble / This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.

Sleep consumes the end of this poem. Literally: the word is used four times in the final five lines, as the speaker struggles to define whatever sleep it is. Joseph Brodsky writes about a similar moment in “Home Burial” where the word “see” is repeated six times in a small number of lines: “The idea is to explode the verb from within…. The effect that Frost tries to create is the inadequacy of response when you automatically repeat the first word that comes to your tongue. ‘Seeing’ here is simply reeling from the unnameable.”[4] The same could be said for sleep at the end of “After Apple-Picking.” The speaker wants to label his sleep, to take it apart, examine the stem end and blossom end of it, to name its aches and pressures. But the word explodes from within. Sleep is sleep. There’s no other way to say it. It is an unnameable thing, whether it is the Long (final?) sleep of the woodchuck, or something more human.

Frost wrote extensively about his theory of “speaking tones;” in his poetry, he wanted to “cultivate…the hearing imagination rather than the seeing imagination.” He uses the final line of “Home Burial” as an example: “I am not bothered by the question whether anyone will be able to hear or say those three words (‘If—you—do!’) as I mean them to be said or heard. I should say they were sufficiently self-expressive.”[5] It’s true. A century later, I can hear quite clearly how Frost intends me to read the last line of “Home Burial.” It’s easy. I’m sure I’m right. But in “After Apple-Picking” I have no idea how to read the end. Or just some human sleep. What does it mean? Human sleep is apparently somehow the lesser possibility—rather than the woodchuck’s long sleep, it is just some sleep that humans have—ordinary, unremarkable. But what makes human sleep just some anticlimactic thing, and how is the woodchuck’s long sleep greater? Is it more animal? More restful? More final?

Sometimes when I say the poem to myself, I say that final line as a shrug, a tone similar to the end of “Design.” If design govern in a thing so small. Maybe it all doesn’t matter. The speaker is working himself up over how much his own sleep is like the woodchuck’s long—possibly forever—sleep, and ends up surmising that it could as easily be nothing fatal, just one more night in a human life. The speaker wakes the next morning to find his long two-pointed ladder still in the damn tree. There’s a pane of glass in the drinking trough again. Winter progresses.

Sometimes I say the last line with a sense of regret. Or just some human sleep. It sounds so small, so—well, worthless compared to the long sleep of the woodchuck. How disappointing, to have a life full of human sleeps—daily, unremembered.

There’s something else going on with the word sleep. I memorized the poem on a whim this September. It was comforting to me—the precision of the flecks of russet, the skimmed ice. But the end shocked me at first. Had Frost jumped the tennis-net of his form? On a first read, the final word of the poem seemed unrhymed; it called back to nothing. Of course this isn’t true—sleep is repeated so often that it undoes its own rhymed ending; it seems to leave the music of the poem incomplete, but doesn’t really. Human sleep pairs up with the cider-apple heap, seven lines earlier. It’s a clever way of distinguishing human sleep from the woodchuck’s long sleep. Human sleep is heap-sleep. It is a sleep of cider-apples. It’s one that slips away.

It is almost winter. I’ve been writing the same poem over and over, trying to get at something specific: that strangeness of being human, both inside time and not. The strangeness of having both a body and a memory, the strangeness of how I’ll lose both. I am trying to write about it. I’m failing. I have files and notebooks full of poems I don’t want to rescue, poems I’ll never look back at. (I’m overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.) Frost writes:

A poem is never a put-up job so to speak. It begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness…. It finds its thought or makes its thought…. It may be a big big emotion…and yet finds nothing it can embody in. It finds the thought and the thought finds the words.[6]

Frost found his thought in apple-picking. I’m not sure I’ve found mine yet.

It is almost winter. The dead bee lies in a Tupperware in my hallway; I don’t know what to do with it. The Christmas cacti bloom. I’ve been running the track around Prospect Park, here in the same world where Robert Frost spent a night dreaming of magnified apples. Here in the same world where somewhere there’s a farm by mountains or the ocean, somewhere a harvest waiting for me.

I’m surprised about the running. I gave it up when I was a smoker. I thought it would be difficult now, but it’s easy, comes naturally. I read somewhere that depression is caused by a broken fight-or-flight response. The body gets caught in the need to deal with a danger, even when it’s no longer there. Running lets the body finish its reaction; it teaches it to escape old grief. It’s an animal instinct, running from danger. But only humans remember this way, clutching in our dream-brains the things we can’t run from. We’re cellar-bin beings, keep hearing each lost moment rumbling through. The only creatures who live straddled across time, hold close to what’s gone, even the unwanted. We keep the ache. We cherish.

It is almost winter. I don’t want to lose a single fleck of russet in this world. I will.

 

December 7, 2014

[1] Edward Connery Lathem, Interviews with Robert Frost, 2nd ed (Guilford, CT: Jeffery Norton, 1997), 77.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert Faggen, ed, The Notebooks of Robert Frost (Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard University Press, 2006), 46.

[4] Joseph Brodsky, “On Grief and Reason,” The New Yorker, 26 Sept 1994, 77.

[5] Elaine Barry, Robert Frost on Writing (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1973), 15.

[6] Ibid, 25-26.


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