What Kinds of Times are These

What Kinds of Times are These

by Adrienne Rich

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill

and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows

near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted

who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled

this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,

our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,

its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods

meeting the unmarked strip of light –

ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:

I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you

anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these

to have you listen at all, it’s necessary

to talk about trees.


Emily Carr (1871-1945) Summer, Mount Douglas Park 1942

In the late 1930’s, when German poet Bertolt Brecht was living in exile in Denmark, he posed this question What kind of times are these? in a poem titled: To Posterity sometimes translated as To Those Who Come After.  It’s a bitter poem full of foreboding that reflected his deep awareness of the threat ahead and what war would mean. It begins: Truly, I live in the dark ages. He asks:

What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!

Half a century later – in 1991 – Adrienne Rich picked up on that question for her own poem of dread and foreboding.

Franciszek Kostrzewski (1826–1911) Mushroom Picking. C. 1860

Boulogne-sur-Mer, Hollow Trail Dominated by Trees by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1795-1876) Date unknown

Keith Vaughan (1912-1977), Soldiers in a Wood, 1943.

Botanic gardens showing a few cultivated specimens. From Robyn Bauer of Urban Sketchers

The featured image is a detail from the Canadian artist Emily Carr. Among the Firs 1930’s.

2 Comments

  1. What a wonderful post. Thank you. I knew neither of the Adriennne Rich poem not the Brecht, and both are beautiful, chilling and much too timely. Even Jimmy Carter acknowledges the U.S. is now an oligarchy, and Marine Le Pen is dangerously close to winning the French election. Timely indeed.

  2. Adrienne Rich wrote that poem in 1991. I can only imagine what she would be thinking today. We can’t expect them to save us, but I do wonder how the poets, writers and artists of all kinds will respond to these times. Apparently, when Matisse was asked how he managed to survive the war artistically, he replied that he spent the worst years “drawing ballerinas”. There has to be more to that story given that both his estranged wife and daughter were active in the Resistance and were arrested, the latter only being saved from Ravensbruck by Allied bombing. Anyway. Thanks for the comment. And poetry is a wonderful thing!

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