Autumn’s Subterranean Mysteries

Yesterday was damp and gray but, rather than being depressed, I found myself luxuriating in the smells. I thought of the Mary Oliver poem “Fall Song,” which speaks of  the “rich spiced residues” of the vegetation “crumbling damply in the shadows.” Summer is gone, she says, but now there are new “unobservable mysteries” in the “black subterranean castle” that consists of “roots and sealed seeds and the wanderings of water.”

I love the poem’s vision of our “unmattering” but confess to being confused by the ending. It sounds as though, after celebrating the subterranean mysteries, she then (under pressure of time’s chafing) becomes nostalgic for summer. Her talk of shifting bright visions does not sound as though she truly accepts the new season. Or is there another way to read the final two couplets?

Here’s the poem:

Fall Song

By Mary Oliver

Another year gone, leaving everywhere
its rich spiced residues: vines, leaves,

the uneaten fruits crumbling damply
in the shadows, unmattering back

from the particular island
of this summer, this NOW, that now is nowhere

except underfoot, moldering
in that black subterranean castle

of unobservable mysteries – roots and sealed seeds
and the wanderings of water. This

I try to remember when time’s measure
painfully chafes, for instance when autumn

flares out at the last, boisterous and like us longing
to stay – how everything lives, shifting

from one bright vision to another, forever
in these momentary pastures.


Artistic note: The photograph is of the Floxglover Covert Local Nature Reserve in Scotland. Information can be found at 

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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