9/16/09

Resurrection Fern

In our days we will live 
Like our ghosts will live:
Pitching glass at the cornfield crows 
And folding clothes 

Like stubborn boys across the road 
We'll keep everything:
Grandma's gun and the black bear claw 
That took her dog 

When Sister Lowery says, "Amen" 
We won't hear anything:
The ten-car trains will take that word 
That fledgling bird 

And the fallen house across the way 
It'll keep everything:
The baby's breath
Our bravery wasted and our shame

And we'll undress beside the ashes of the fire 
Both our tender bellies wound in baling wire 
All the more a pair of underwater pearls 
Than the oak tree and its resurrection fern

In our days we will say 
What our ghosts will say:
We gave the world what it saw fit 
And what'd we get?

Like stubborn boys with big green eyes 
We'll see everything:
In the timid shade of the autumn leaves 
And the buzzard's wing 

And we'll undress beside the ashes of the fire 
Our tender bellies are wound around in baling wire 
All the more a pair of underwater pearls 
Than the oak tree and its resurrection fern 





I have been listening to Iron and Wine's song Resurrection Fern obsessively these last couple of days. I had always liked this song but never truly listened to it until two days ago. The lyrics are redolent with rural imagery , like "pitching glass at the cornfield crows and folding clothes" in the stunning first verse. Then there is the reference to Evelyn Lowery, the civil rights activist. Later on, more imagery of the rural landscape: "in the timid shade of autumn leaves" and "buzzard's wing." But the chorus has the most beautiful lines: "And we'll undress beside the ashes of the fire; Our tender bellies are wound around in baling wire; All the more a pair of underwater pearls; Than the oak tree and its resurrection fern." Again, there is the rural reference: baling wire, an ubiquitous object around farms used for repairing fences and such. "Tender bellies... wound around in baling wire... beside the ashes of the fire" is an astonishingly evocative image, and Sam Beam's plaintive voice rises with insistence as he sings these words, as if to underscore their emotional weight.  Then the juxtaposition of "a pair of underwater pearls" – equals in beauty and out of reach – as opposed to "the oak tree and its resurrection fern" – two intertwined entities but one dependent on the other – is so visually forceful. Pearls – small, contained, hard to find – vs. oak tree & its resurrection fern – monumental, ever growing, in plain sight. Aqueous depth vs. aerial height. But the resurrection fern is a strange plant, with the rare ability to survive long periods of drought by curling up, appearing for intents and purposes dead, only to come back to life with the tiniest bit of water. Being an air plant, the resurrection fern's livelihood does not depend on soil but on the air and the bark of the tree to which it attaches itself. Beam closes the song with this powerful image – resurrection fern nimbly entwining itself along the bark of a stately live oak – which lingers,  with all its wider metaphorical meaning about life. Like all great art, this song takes me to a place unfamiliar and unknown to me, the rural South (Beam lives in Florida, where the resurrection fern grows in abundance) – a place that I honestly have little interest in – and shows its beauty to me. In a few words and a wistful melody, gentle acoustic guitar chords overlaid with a country twang from a steel guitar, it sends me on a journey to a foreign landscape, with glimpses of a life so different and yet full of resonance to my own.  The lyrics lend themselves to various interpretations, from the personal to the political – the South, the civil rights, and by implication, the legacy of slavery ("our bravery wasted, our shame"), but either way, the song is indescribably beautiful and tender.

3 comments:

  1. Interesting commentary. I came to the song via the band "The Side Project" (see: http://tspband.bandcamp.com/). The dang song has been haunting me all week. I could only dream of writing and actually performing a song such as that. Thanks for your comments...they help me see more of what this song could be about.

    Sincerely,

    Kevin B. Selby

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  2. Beautiful commentary, thank you so much.

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  3. I enjoyed your analysis, a beautiful song, musically and lyrically.

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