A look at Roddy Lumsden's 'One Acre Yard'
Where are we? The poem has brought us to a large yard in Fargo, the biggest city in North Dakota. It is April, we are told; our poet and his companion have “missed the thaw by days”; Spring has come late. The yard, we find, is burdened with feelings that go unspoken – washed-out and fatigued like the vowel sounds in its “narrow palette / of oatmeals and ochre”, it is also redolent of a loitering loneliness, as “only the spruce / busks its darkness down each limit”. So the scene is set, the wavering light in those browned yellows against a dwindling, clinging darkness. We feel like we have been here before – not exactly here, but somewhere remarkably similar: that same sense of an imperceptible yet soon-to-be seismic shift; that same taking stock when we hadn’t quite intended or expected to; these wavering feelings beginning to settle. Clearly, we are at the edge of a very specific moment – “all that has fallen these months”, be it “beer tins” or “deer scat”, or the unmentioned, off-stage, hinted-at emotional grief of our two onlookers, “now gains at last the effortless glory / of standstill, dropped through the slush / those last redemptive inches.” That sibilance is spot-on, the softest of landings, though no doubt also, somewhere in there, the slip and skittishness of feet on ice, and again it comes in this “story / twisting in its final paragraphs, debris settling”. Similarly, we are barely aware of the scheme of half-rhymes studding the ends of each quatrain’s lines, holding the scene together in its little linguistic magic trick, all the while threatening to fracture and break under our feet, like ice on a river. Yet like the “frozen raven / who has wintered here” who now “welcomes the sun and softens, unzips / his coat to show his bones and basks”, we sense all might yet be okay, even if uncertainty is still present, as “warmth”, somewhat unnervingly, “infects the air”, and a “terrier inspects” the “snow-stung grass”. Time for the poem’s onlookers to take a risk, then, to set scepticism aside, and believe their luck as well as to test it: “We walk the acre arm in arm, / still melting from our shyness”. The ice on the river has gone, “freshened and shirring at its banks”, and so, too, “all harm” is “on ice”, “the worst of winters over.” Deceptively simple in its conjuring of these complex emotions, the poem brings us to new beginnings through the familiar conceit of nature’s rebirth, something that would be pure cliché in lesser writing. Instead, here it is understated, quietly inventive, and – best of all – beautiful and strange in the same breath. Though with poet and companion relaxing a little, time, it would seem, for us to leave.
'One Acre Yard' is from The Drowning Man, included in Mischief Night: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2004)