First Fall

“We look at the world once, in childhood, the rest is memory,” Nobel Prize-winning poet Louise Glück wrote in her poem “Nostos”.  I’ve been thinking about the wisdom of those lines these past few golden weeks in the Berkshires. Working in the garden as the last of the leaves drift down from the maples, I realize how much of what I feel is filtered through the past. The smell of woodsmoke. The honking of geese at night. The full Hunter’s moon rising over Harvey Mountain. All these moments have a feeling of déjà vu, memories piled on top of memories, smoldering like the fires my father built along our driveway to burn the leaves when I was a girl. That was the world I first saw, the autumn I first remember, the season against which I’ve measured all the ones that have come after.  Here’s a poem on the subject by Maggie Smith who writes so beautifully about motherhood.

First Fall
by Maggie Smith 

I’m your guide here. In the evening-dark
morning streets, I point and name.
Look, the sycamores, their mottled,
paint-by-number bark. Look, the leaves
rusting and crisping at the edges.
I walk through Schiller Park with you
on my chest. Stars smolder well
into daylight. Look, the pond, the ducks,
the dogs paddling after their prized sticks.
Fall is when the only things you know
because I’ve named them
begin to end. Soon I’ll have another
season to offer you: frost soft
on the window and a porthole
sighed there, ice sleeving the bare
gray branches. The first time you see
something die, you won’t know it might
come back. I’m desperate for you
to love the world because I brought you here.

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18 Responses to First Fall

  1. Fred Allen says:

    What a gorgeous essay—“. . . smoldering like the fires my father built . . .” couldn’t be more apt and evocative. And I’ve been thinking about that Louise Glück line, too!

    • Liza says:

      Thank you, Fred. I meant to reply sooner, but my site went down and has just arisen from the ashes. Here’s Nostos in its entirety, if you haven’t yet read it:


      There was an apple tree in the yard —
      this would have been
      forty years ago — behind,
      only meadows. Drifts
      off crocus in the damp grass.
      I stood at that window:
      late April. Spring
      flowers in the neighbor’s yard.
      How many times, really, did the tree
      flower on my birthday,
      the exact day, not
      before, not after? Substitution
      of the immutable
      for the shifting, the evolving.
      Substitution of the image
      for relentless earth. What
      do I know of this place,
      the role of the tree for decades
      taken by a bonsai, voices
      rising from tennis courts —
      Fields. Smell of the tall grass, new cut.
      As one expects of a lyric poet.
      We look at the world once, in childhood.
      The rest is memory.

  2. Cheryl Sullivan says:

    I love what you wrote, and this poem by Maggie Smith is wonderful. It is new to me

  3. Phyllis says:

    Thanks for this memory and poem.

  4. Thank you for this lovely poem.
    What you write is so true — how our earliest memories define so much of our life experiences thereafter…especially those of autumn where our senses are filled with sound (rustling leaves, honking geese) and scent (burning leaves).

  5. Beata M Newman Scarpulla says:

    This post is wonderful!

    Your observations and then the poem following are very special in the memories they bring out.

    Thanks for this.


  6. Thank you for your essay, and for the poem by Maggie Smith whose poetry I now must read more of.

  7. Susan says:

    Another wonderful post. Yet, these days I often try to clear those memories and try to see the world with the same bright eyes of my grandchildren. Of course it’s not possible. But sometimes, just for a moment, we look into each other’s eyes in delight when we hear the hoot owls behind their house at dusk conversing. And it’s as if I’m hearing that sound for the first time.

    The image I love the most in the poem is the parent and child at the frosty window, “and a portal/sighed there.” So many memories and sudden discoveries!

    Thank you, Liza

    • Liza says:

      Thanks, Susan. How lucky you are to be able to see the world — and hear the owl! — from the perspective of your grandchildren.

  8. Susan Fisher says:

    Wow! This poem is stunningly beautiful. Lucky baby!

  9. Barry Littmann says:

    One of my favorite seasons.
    I remember jumping into a pile of leaves my father would rake, now I fall into a pile of leaves that I raked from exhaustion.

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