Blackberry Winter by Robert Penn Warren, 1947
The magic trick:
Connecting the poetic notion of time to the tangible events and characters of the story
This is such a beautiful story, it’s nearly impossible to select only one magic trick to highlight, but the way in which Warren interweaves the time metaphor throughout the characters and plot seems a good place to start.
Warren establishes the time theme in the third paragraph, breaking from the plot to describe quite eloquently how the experiences of a 9-year-old boy stand in one’s memories more than those from other ages. What you remember, Warren writes, “stands up big and full and fills up Time and is so solid that you can walk around and around it like a tree and look at it.” Warren, having set up his main point, can filter the rest of the story through that lens.
The blackberry winter, the tramp and the flood seem to arrive together, connected somehow. The men at the bridge talk of bracing for the hard times in life. Dellie, her home ravaged by the flood, is sick, perhaps realizing that one of those hard times has struck her family. Big Jebb personifies the tree of time, talking of time coming, time going, calmly waiting for the end of time. Warren wraps it all up in the final sentence, as the narrator looks back on the episode and admits that he has for his entire life remembered the day the tramp arrived at the farm.
I am not often a fan of art that requires the artist to break from the piece in order to directly explain what the work of art is trying to say, as Warren does early in this story. But here, the technique works perfectly and the result is a rich, layered, and poetic consideration of time, memory and fate. And that’s quite a magic trick on Warren’s part.
You are aware that time passes, that there is a movement in time, but that is not what Time is. Time is not a movement, a flowing, a wind then, but it is, rather, a kind of climate in which things are, and when a thing happens it begins to live and keeps on living and stands solid in Time like the tree that you can walk around. And if there is a movement, the movement is not Time itself, any more than a breeze is climate, and all the breeze does is to shake a little the leaves on the tree which is alive and solid.