cummings covenant

e. e. cummings’ poem Nobody loses all the time, which recounts the agricultural failures of ‘uncle Sol,’ so resembled Anton’s career as a farmer that when I encountered it as a young man I memorised it. The poem in a single breathless long-drop sentence tells how Uncle Sol, a ‘born failure’ more suited to Vaudeville than farming, conducts a series of agricultural disasters: the chickens eat the vegetables, the skunks eat the chickens, then catch cold and die, and so on, until, in the end Uncle Sol himself becomes a (successful) worm farm. The poem only works if read in the accent of a Southern hick, and its humour is generated by the tension between the highfalutin’ phrases and homey diction.

This tension was evident in Anton, too. Coming from a small-town Afrikaans background, he necessarily had a good measure of whatever passed for hick. But brilliant, confident and competent, it was the highfalutin’ that he desired and successfully cultivated. Perhaps if he had ‘gone into Vaudeville’, for he could sing, dance and had the graces of an actor, things would have gone better for him. Perhaps if he had abandoned the highfalutin’ and settled for the hick, allowing his impressive talents as a chameleon to guide him into the role of successful farmer, he could have done it. But he was too maverick, too much at odds with the world around him and perhaps with himself, too clever and too changeable to fit the role of phlegmatic bigot that was required of a farmer in those parts.

The big farms were out-competing him with citrus; the trees were old and needed costly replacing, so he tore out the productive orchards, hiring a bulldozer to uproot the trees. He planted cotton, but was defeated by the boll weevil in spite of spraying. He planted tomatoes, and I can still picture the label that my mother devised for the wooden tomato-boxes: Owl Brand, the cartoon owl having two red tomatoes for eyes. The tomatoes, which were flood-irrigated by means of little earthen furrows that afforded endless play, thrived. But so did everybody else’s that year. The glut depressed the prices below his break-even point. He tried sweet potatoes, and again was hit by a glut. For eight years, Lesley, Raymond and I were bound into this tale of serial failure by the covenant of marriage.

__________

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