and he named them as he passed them

December 12, 2011 § 3 Comments

In preparation for facilitating an online discussion this week & next, I’ve been re-reading William Gass’ debut novel Omensetter’s Luck [1966]. As I did, I’ve not only re-discovered my old markings, mysterious arrows & excited stars, & esoteric notations, some of them & others those of the previous owner(s), but more importantly those passages couldn’t dare touch, only recite, then & now. I thought I might share one of my favorites: Henry Pimber’s naming of the trees.

The path took Henry Pimber past the slag across the meadow creek where his only hornbeam hardened slowly in the southern shadow of the ridge and the trees of the separating wood began in rows as the lean road in his dream began, narrowing to nothing in the blank horizon, for train rails narrow behind anybody’s journey; and he named them as he passed them: elm, oak, hazel, larch and chestnut tree, as though he might have been the fallen Adam passing them and calling out their soft familiar names, as though familiar names might make some friends for him by being spoken to the unfamiliar and unfriendly world which he was told had been his paradise. In God’s name, when was that? When had that been? For he had hated every day he’d  lived. Ash, birch, maple. Every day he thought would last forever, and the night forever; yet they sped away, the day, the night clicked past as he walked by the creek by the hornbeam tree, the elders, sorrels, cedars and the fir; for as he named them, sounding their soft names in his lonely skull, the fire of fall was on them, and he named the days he’d lost. It was still sorrowful to die. Eternity, for them, had ended. And he would fall, when it came his time, like an unseen leaf, the bud that was the glory of his birth forgot before remembered. He named the aspen, beech, and willow, and he said aloud the locust when he saw it leafless like a battlefield. In God’s name, when was that? When had that been?

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