SPEAKER: Although Archie Ammons never dwelt on childhood memories as obsessively as some poets have, he did periodically revisit the scenes of his early life, as in this brief lyric called, "I Went Back." "I went back to my old home, and the furrow of each year plowed like surf across the place had not washed memory away."
Even in this compact little poem, we can see how complex and dynamic Ammons's sense of place is. Two metaphors seem to wrestle each other for dominance. The agricultural metaphor of furrows plowed in the earth, and the oceanic metaphor of surf washing across a beach. If plowing produces a kind of inscription, carving lines into the soil much as a poet writes them on the page, the surf acts as a relentless eraser, smoothing away all traces of human presence.
Yet from a grammatical point of view, the furrow is the primary subject of the verb clause, "had not washed memory away," while the surf appears as part of a subordinate simile. This makes sense when we recall that on a farm, new furrows are plowed each year, obliterating the marks of prior seasons. Both furrows and surf therefore threaten to wipe out the memories that stubbornly cling to the poet's native soil. And of course, the poem's point is that memory does remain alive in this landscape, despite the erosive forces of time.
Ammons felt that his home country-- both the particular farm he grew up on and the surrounding region of eastern North Carolina-- was haunted by past associations, by echoes and images that could never be washed away. Yet Ammons also knew how fragile memory is, how we must labor to preserve our images of what has been. He learned this lesson at an early age, in what I'm convinced was the formative experience of his childhood.
When Archie was four years old, his younger brother Elbert died. In a short autobiographical essay, he wrote, "I have images of him lying in his cradle, covered with a veil. And I saw his coffin being made. And I watched as he was taken away, his coffin astraddle the open rumble seat of a model A. I see my mother leaning against the porch between the huge blue hydrangeas as she wept and prayed."
One image in particular seems to have left a deep impression on Archie, as he recalls in an interview. "The most powerful image of my emotional life is something I had repressed, and one of my sisters lately reminded me of. It was when my little brother, who was 2 and 1/2 years younger than I, died at 18 months. My mother some days later found his footprint in the yard, and tried to build something over it to keep the wind from blowing it away." That's the most powerful image I've ever known.
While it may seem strange that Ammons had to be reminded by his sister of what he calls the most powerful image of his emotional life, he's surely right to ascribe this lapse to repression rather than simple forgetting. In fact, the image of his dead brother's footprint in the dust, temporarily protected from the wind by a crude shelter built out of love and grief, reverberates throughout Ammons's poetry. One would be hard pressed to find an image that more poignantly captures the perennial conflict between transience, or change-- embodied so often for Ammons by the action of wind upon sand or dust-- and the human need to hold onto and preserve fragments of its own existence and those it has loved.
The footprint in the dust is an image of memory itself at its most elemental. And in his struggle to remember and recast it in his poems, Ammons was, in a sense, simply completing the work begun by his mother so many years ago, building another kind of shelter for the traces and echoes of human passing.
In the late 1950s, Ammons wrote a series of poems that form his most sustained engagement with the remembered landscape of the farm in Whiteville. Many of these poems remain unpublished, including several that deal with the death of his brothers-- a second boy was stillborn the year after Elbert died. Archie apparently felt that these were too personal to share with the world.
But even the poems about the farm that he did publish are pervaded by a sense of loss, much of it directed at beloved animals, like Silver the mule and Sparkle the pig. For a boy as sensitive as Archie, the inevitable death of farm animals, often at the hands of humans, was genuinely traumatic. A few years after penning these animal poems, Ammons wrote his most poignant tribute to the farm and its inhabitants, "Nelly Myers," an elegy for a mildly retarded woman who was taken in by the Ammons family and who helped out with housework and other odd jobs.
Ammons lovingly records her folksy expressions, her physical ailments, and her irrepressible exuberance, ending the poem with this anguished outburst. "Oh, where her partial soul, as others thought, roams, roams my love. Mother, not my mother. Grandmother, not my grandmother. Slave to our farm's work, no slave I would not stoop to. I will not end my grief. Earth will not end my grief. I move on. We move on. Some scraps of us together, my broken soul, leaning toward her to be touched. Listening to be healed."
Readers accustomed to the detached, alternately thoughtful and jokey manner of Ammons's later poetry may be surprised by the unabashed emotionalism of these lines. Such intensity of feeling, when it does appear in Ammons's work, seems inextricably linked to the poet's memories of the Whiteville farm, a landscape that Nelly Myers embodies in her weathered simplicity and cheerfulness.
But the dominant note here, as in the animal poems, is grief for a world that can never be recovered. In his great poem, "Easter Morning," Ammons gives this grief its largest expression. "I stand on the stump of a child, whether myself or my little brother who died, and yell as far as I can. I cannot leave this place. For for me, it is the dearest and the worst. It is life nearest to life, which is life lost. It is my place where I must stand and fail, calling attention with tears to the branches not lofting boughs into space, to the barren air that holds the world that was my world."
The farm and the surrounding countryside is a landscape steeped in love and loss, memory and grief. And we can hardly wonder that Ammons chose to visit it so seldom in his poems. Each time he did, the pain of the encounter nearly overwhelmed him. While the farm for Ammons was forever haunted by the ghosts of beloved people and animals, its most basic constituent was the earth itself, the ground upon which he and his family labored and from which they gained their sustenance.
In one of his very last poems, "Core Sample"-- which, like many of his longer poems, was typed on adding machine tape-- Ammons makes a final pilgrimage to the farm, this time to commune directly with his native soil. "Youth for me was tools and the ground. The ground was an overwhelming presence and potential, and the skinny tools, the rakes, hoes, plows, axes, mauls, were riddled of the ground. I worked the soil, and the heavens held or gave rain. Winds slashed or cooled the squash plants. Hail pocked or sizzled weeds or 'baccer leaves. Lines of beauty run like arteries through these many. The swoosh of blessings, biddies spared from the hawk, the abominations of chicks, chilled numb by midnight storms."
The remembered tools and rhythms of labor here melt imperceptibly into an awareness of larger patterns, blessings and abominations meted out from above. The ground and the sky together define the space of possibility for a young farmer struggling to sustain the life around him and within him. Once again, however, the knowledge of loss breaks into the poem.
"Alas, I am such a cut-up creature, with such a love though, such a love for what is gone. It doesn't feel like sap, but like wires of light drawn out from hell, fire spooled from hell fire." The poet's love for all he has lost feels to him neither heavenly nor nourishing, but infernal in its heat and bondage. No amount of tilling, plowing, or irrigation could ever purge this soil of its memories. And for Ammons, those memories burned like hell fire.
In 1944, his father sold the farm and moved the family to the nearby town of Chad Byrne. After his discharge from the Navy, Archie attended Wake Forest College, graduating in 1949 with a bachelor's degree in science. He then spent a year as principal of a tiny elementary school in Cape Hatteras on the Carolina coast. In 1950, Ammons's mother died, an event that seems to have definitively severed his ties to his home country.
In an early poem that is the closest thing to an elegy for his mother, he wrote, "Ammons envisions a farmland blighted by drought. The sap has gone out of the trees in the land of my birth, and the branches droop. The rye is rusty in the fields, and the oak grains are light in the wind. The combine sucks at the fields and coughs out dry, mottled straw. The bags of grain are chaffy and light. The sap has gone out of the hollow straws, and the marrow out of my bones. They are brittle and dry and painful in this land."
The fertility and nourishment that had once suffused the land of his birth is gone. While the poem doesn't identify the cause of this catastrophe, it's clear that a life-giving maternal principle has been lost. The farm has become a desert. Its black earth has turned to dust, and the poet himself has become a desiccated carcass. Shortly after his mother's death, Ammons left North Carolina for good to set out on a journey that took him from California to Ithica by way of New Jersey.
In one of his earliest published poems, "Some Months Ago," he describes this leave taking in mythic terms. "I closed up all the natural throats of Earth and cut my ties with every natural heart, and saying farewell, stepped out into the great open." It's worth noting that natural contains the word natal. Having lost the woman who bore him, Ammons was now ready to leave the land that bore him as well. That journey took him through a very different kind of landscape, as we'll see in the next segment.
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The poetry of A.R. Ammons has won praise for its close attention to nature and the incorporation of scientific terms, its candid attention to daily life, and its mastery of both long and short forms. Join Roger Gilbert as he focuses on the crucial role played by place or scene in Ammons's work.
This video is part 2 of 6 in the From Whiteville to Ithaca series.