Eighteen people from Canada, CA, Lithuania, ME, NJ, NY, PA (and via the poem: Nebraska) joined on Zoom to close read the poem “Shaking the Grass” by Janice N. Harrington, posted below. Participants were quick to notice the alliteration, metaphors, repetition, and visual imagery as well as the duality, the tension and tones of rest and regret, loss and regeneration, a humble voice questioning one’s own vanity. Was the narrator looking back and considering whether they had left some mark on the world?
Intertextual references included: Ecclesiastes, Ezra Pound’s “And the Days Are Not Full Enough” and two paintings: Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World and Charles Allan Gilbert All is Vanity. There was curiosity in the poem and in us. We wondered: who is “my Beloved” and what or who is disappearing along with “the hollow my body made.” We were reminded of the impermanence of memory and, in the heartland of America, the disappearance of the prairies and grasslands.
After our discussion, participants had the option to respond to one of two prompts, either “Write about something that came back to you.” OR “Write about lying in the grass.”
One response had us laying in blades of grass with “warm wind,” vibrant colors of “green” and “azure” sky, with birds “zigging and darting” overhead, the narrator conveying a longing for time to stand still in that moment. Another piece gave voice to Odysseus, remembering and then returning home after war, his journey stretched into a decade of wandering on top of the metaphor of “losing my keys.” One piece, like the poem, located us geographically in memory near Grenoble, France, lying in a field cradled between two mountains where the writer was reminded that “beauty is beyond words.” Another writer started their piece with the “sweet, sweet, sweet” of birdsong, as the narrator, while walking, comes upon a “nascent fawn,” itself lying in the grass “that shook ever so slightly,” in echo of the poem while offering an unexpected perspective on “lying in the grass.” In looking at these responses the group noted how they all embodied themes and elements of the poem, including time, geography, impermanence, with wonderfully vivid detail, and still took us in many different and surprising, yet contemplative, directions.
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Shaking the Grass by Janice N. Harrington Evening, and all my ghosts come back to me like red banty hens to catalpa limbs and chicken-wired hutches, clucking, clucking, and falling, at last, into their head-under-wing sleep. I think about the field of grass I lay in once, between Omaha and Lincoln. It was summer, I think. The air smelled green, and wands of windy green, a-sway, a-sway, swayed over me. I lay on green sod like a prairie snake letting the sun warm me. What does a girl think about alone in a field of grass, beneath a sky as bright as an Easter dress, beneath a green wind? Maybe I have not shaken the grass. All is vanity. Maybe I never rose from that green field. All is vanity. Maybe I did no more than swallow deep, deep breaths and spill them out into story: all is vanity. Maybe I listened to the wind sighing and shivered, spinning, awhirl amidst the bluestem and green lashes: O my beloved! O my beloved! I lay in a field of grass once, and then went on. Even the hollow my body made is gone. From Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone by Janice N Harrington. Copyright © 2007 by Janice N. Harrington.