Disembarking from the Summer Ark

It happened as if on cue. The moment we finished reading Parashat Noach in shul this past Shabbat, just after the forty days of rain came to an end and God promised that “so long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall never cease,” the floodgates of the sky opened and a heavy rain poured down over Jerusalem. Those who were early to shul came in summer clothes and stayed dry; those who were late walked in sopping wet; and those who were really late arrived in long-sleeves and raincoats. It was the first real rain of the season (other than a brief 7am drizzle a few weeks ago), and we could feel the ground thirsting to drink up every last drop after six months of parched dryness. By the afternoon the air was clean and crisp as if the whole atmosphere had just been laundered, and we went for a walk under the clear blue sky to mark that summer had ended and autumn had begun.

At kiddish after shul I told a friend that I don’t think women menstruated on the ark, because all natural processes ceased. There was no seedtime in the earth or in the human body. The ark was a place of stasis and suspended animation, with no birth or growth or death or rebirth. It was the opposite of the world we know, with its changing seasons, its days that grow longer and shorter, its waxing and waning moon. Although sometimes during hot August afternoons it may seem that “summer days will never cease,” as Keats said in his majestic “Ode to Autumn,” the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” always comes around. This year, when we sat sweating under the hot sun in the sukkah on account of the early holiday schedule, I found myself memorizing Rilke’s “Autumn Day,” a poem that captures the bittersweetness of summer’s end:

Autumn Day

Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your shadow on the sundials
and let loose the wind in the fields.

The first stanza captures the immensity of summer, whose hot days are as oppressive as its long evenings are liberating. In those last hot days we find ourselves entreating the Lord to rein in the long days and dispel the heat with autumn breezes. And yet as the second stanza indicates, we don’t really want summer to end quite yet:

Bid the last fruits to be full;
give them another two more southerly days,
press them to ripeness, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

We want just a bit more summer, enough to allow the final fruits to ripen and swell and sweeten. Like Chazal, Rilke distinguishes between all fruit and the heavy wine, which is worthy of its own mention and its own blessing: Let all fruits be full, but blessed and sweet be the fruit of the heavy vine. This stanza is clearly heavily influenced by Keats’ “Ode to Autumn,” which the poet composed on a September afternoon while taking a walk through the fields:

Ode to Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’erbrimmed their clammy cells.

Summer cannot end until all fruit is filled with ripeness to the core. We must have the last pomegranates and mangoes to seed and peel with sticky hands as the redness splatters the cabinets and the yellow juice trickles down to our elbows. It cannot rain before Sukkot because first we must gather in the gourds and the hazel shells and all the bounty of the harvest. Rilke invokes Keats’ powers of close observation and rich sensual language to describe the natural world at a particular moment in time. But Rilke is not a nature poet like Keats; he is, primarily, the poet of loneliness. And so for Rilke, the end of summer is about ripeness, but also resignation. As we see in the third and final stanza, the winds that are let loose are also stately sighs:

Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore.
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,
will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.

Conjoining house and spouse, as the Talmud, too, is wont, Rilke asserts that to everything there is a season, and the time of building is over. Those who did not find someone to snuggle with during the cold winter nights ahead will have to wait until the next seedtime. Those who are alone—a state with which the poet is clearly intimately familiar—will find themselves staying up alone and wandering the avenues “restlessly,” a word that sounds (in this beautiful translation) like the rustling of the leaves with which the poem concludes. I imagine these solitary souls wandering with their chins up and their heads held high, and even as their jaws tremble with the enormity of the pain of loneliness, they do not cry. They have fixed their sights on the next corner, and the next, and they will acquaint themselves with the night until they are so tired that they are ready to collapse from exhaustion — and only then, when they can be sure there is no danger of crying themselves to sleep, do they permit themselves to go inside again.

When I think of these night wanderers I am reminded of Steven Millhauser’s hypnotic novella “Enchanted Night,” about the lonely inhabitants of a small town in Connecticut who cannot sleep on a hot late summer night. Indeed, the first chapter is called “Restless,” and depicts someone who can’t bear to stay inside anymore:

“A hot summer night in southern Connecticut, tide going out and the moon still rising. Laura Engstrom, fourteen years old, sits in bed and throws the covers off. Her forehead is damp, her hair feels wet. Through the screens of the two half-open windows she can hear a rasp of crickets and a dim rush of traffic on the distant thruway. Five past twelve. The room is so hot that the heat is gripping her throat. Got to move, got to do something. Moonlight is streaming in past the edges of the closed and slightly raised venetian blinds. She can’t breathe in this room, in this house. Oh man, do something. Do it… She can’t stay in this room, oh no. If she doesn’t do something right away, this second, she’ll scream. The inside of her skin itches. Her bones itch. So how do you scratch your bones? She has to get out there, she has to breathe. If you don’t breathe, you’re dead. The room is killing her.”

When does the moment come when we accept that summer is over and the long, lonely coldness is beginning to set in? e.e. cummings takes a hard-nosed look at the cruelty of summer’s end, with the loss of any hope that blossoming friendships will ripen into mature love:

“summer is over
— it’s no use demanding
that lending be giving;
it’s no good pretending
befriending means loving”
(sighs mind:and he’s clever)
“for all,yes for all
sweet things are until”

“spring follows winter
as clover knows,maybe”
(heart makes the suggestion)
“or even a daisy—
your thorniest question
my roses will answer”
“but dying’s meanwhile” (mind murmurs;the fool)

“truth would prove truthless
and life a mere pastime
— each joy a deceiver,
and sorrow a system—
if now than forever
could never(by breathless
one breathing)be” soul
“more” cries;with a smile

The mind, ever clever, knows that summer is over, because experience has proven that nothing lasts forever: “all sweet things are until.” And yet while the mind has acknowledged the reality of the changing seasons, the soul is not ready to let go. As in Rilke’s second stanza, the soul cries out “more” in a final gasp for fresh air to breathe in a hot stuffy room, wishing for just a bit more ripeness and fruitfulness, and another chance for friendship to become love. The brain may be an expert in truth, but truth would have no point (“truth would prove truthless”) if the soul did not retain the hope that “now” could become “forever,” that is, that summer days might never cease. The stubborn soul will continue to write the poetry of summer in the lonely days of winter, to enclose those poems in long letters, and to memorize them while walking up and down the Connecticut avenues at night.

But summer is over. There’s no use pretending. This week the creation and destruction stories will give way to the beginning of the saga of the Jewish people, starting with the charge to Abraham to get up, leave his home, and walk the streets from Ur Kasdim to Canaan. By the end of the week we will have begun praying for rain and dew, and Lord it is time. But I still want to carry with me some of the wonder and marvel of the first two parshiyot, those end of summer weeks when life remains full of ripeness and precarious potential. And I want to imagine that when the rain comes again, even the poet of loneliness will find himself seeking refuge in another’s arms, two by two.

One thought on “Disembarking from the Summer Ark

  1. TAH says:

    In NYC our first big fall rainstorm came the morning of Sh'mini Atzeret. Though we hadn't even said Geshem yet, it felt as though it was right on cue here, too — though a different cue from yours!

    I loved the poem you shared. I'd like one with you in return — well, a lied (of course). The poem, “Des Sennen Abschied” (The Herdsman's Farewell) is by Schiller & the setting by Schumann.

    For you — prima le parole!



    Doesn't it perfectly capture the sound of summer departing? The herdsman resigning himself to the loneliness of autumn and winter? The last traces of the warmth of summer against the melancholy drone of the bass?

    Thank you for giving me an excuse to share one of my favorites!


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