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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  • Barbara

    Maybe it’s because I’ve read other poems by Mary Oliver, but I read this as the poet acknowledging she regrets summer and autumn leaving but the only way to enjoy them again is by going forward and, implicitly, all seasons have their particular joys. A great poem I don’t recall seeing before. Thank you, Robin!

  • philosophotarian

    It seemed to me that it was not the season that she has a hard time accepting but the relentless passing of them all. Autumn itself, it seems to her, wants to stay, to linger, but cannot, just as we want to stay, to linger, but must move with the passing of time. The ‘bright visions’ could be any of the seasons: summer’s glaring sun, autumn’s red flaring leaves; winter’s blinding snow or spring’s bright blossoms. She reminds herself of the ‘unmattering’ of the world’s fecundity in an effort to accept and find beauty even when ‘time’s measure painfully chafes.’

    Thanks for sharing the poem.

  • Cousinjim

    Hi Robin…

    Yes, like the previous comments, she seems to be acknowledging the movement of all life through its many seasons, all of them bright…but only can be visioned brightly with the letting go of the holding on to any of it, no matter the chafing. Is it possible to live “unmattering” to the way all things come and go, yet still maintain the human capacity to love all of the ‘ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows’, allowing the constant transformation of that Now, to this Now.

  • Robin Bates

    Thanks so much Barbara, Kristina, and Jim. You are all reading the poem the way I wanted to read it but I was thrown off by the contrast I was seeing between “bright visions” and subterranean unmattering. But I love the idea that we can only see this brightly if are willing to let go and accept transformation. I also love the notion that she is telling autumn that it can’t stay and that there is a “constant transformation of that Now to this Now.” I feel as though grappling with this poem has been a form to exploratory meditation.

  • Sue

    A late comment, but I just came across the poem “Continuities” by Whitman which seems a nice pairing with this poem by Oliver.

    Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,
    No birth, identity, form–no object of the world.
    Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing;
    Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain.
    Ample are time and space–ample the fields of Nature.
    The body, sluggish, aged, cold–the embers left from earlier fires,
    The light in the eye grown dim, shall duly flame again;
    The sun now low in the west rises for mornings and for noons continual;
    To frozen clods ever the spring’s invisible law returns,
    With grass and flowers and summer fruits and corn


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