The Leaves Are Falling
by Kiko Matsing
Leaves have finally turned color! I had been waiting for this all summer, not having lived north enough before to see the four-season cycle. The streets are covered in opulent gold and red, and gleam in late afternoon light. Color changes first at the fringes. It is not so much the production of yellow, as the retreat of green–the disappearance of chlorophyll–that light-harvesting molecule that transforms air into the trees’ very substance. Now, it is shutting down operations, one-by-one dismantling its photosynthetic accoutrements, until a mere black skeleton remains of a once dazzling fullness–a naked stick to stand up to winter.
Reds and purples also appear, at the right conditions, as excess sugars of winter hoarding are transformed by light into color. An occult conjunction of moisture and weather, the onset of spring, the end of summer. No two autumns are thus ever alike.
Autumn to me was, for a long time, merely evoked by Rilke’s poems in The Book of Images. Ostensibly religious, these perhaps belong more properly to his earlier monastic and meditative work, The Book of Hours.
Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.
Befiel den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.
Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your long shadows on the sundials,
and on the meadows let the winds go free.
Command the last fruits to be full;
give them just two more southern days,
urge them on to completion and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.
Who has no house now, will never build one.
Who is alone now, will long remain so,
will stay awake, read, write long letters
and will wander restlessly up and down
the tree-lined streets, when the leaves are drifting.
(trans. Edward Snow)
“Who is alone now, will long remain so…” This line has always puzzled me. I did not understand why it should be so, that is, until I saw how ice in winter obstructs travel, and thus reunions. Autumn is the time to wrap things up before we are locked into the dead of winter. The restlessness in the poem, evoked by the flurry of leaves, is that before an impending stasis.
Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.
Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.
Wir alle fallen. Diese Hand da fällt.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.
Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen
unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält.
The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
as though above were withering farthest gardens;
they fall with a denying attitude.
And night by night, down into solitude,
the heavy earth falls far from every star.
We are all falling. This hand’s falling too–
All have this falling-sickness none withstands.
And yet there’s One whose gently holding hands
this universal falling can’t fall through.
(trans. J.B. Leishman)
This poem is one of my very first introductions to Rilke, and it remains one of my favorites. I remember first reading it in Filipino in Fr. Roque Ferriol’s ethics class. Without being overt as the first (“Lord: it is time…”), it is nonetheless a more steeply religious poem. Falling leaves (“as from withering heavenly gardens”) also embody a metaphysical disarray. Unlike the first poem, however, which ends in a foreboding disquietude (before death?), here, there is a steadying transcendent force: a great Hand that gently catches all the falling. Yet this is not made out of any rational assurance; the last stanza rather states a beatific inversion that can only be uttered from the depths of religious experience.