A Critique and Explication of Byron Herbert Reece’s Poem “I Know a Valley Green With Corn”

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

In “I Know a Valley Green with Corn” poet Byron Herbert Reece (1917-1958) paints a picture with words.  Since the poem poses no great mysteries or oblique or hidden allusions, its beauty may be easily and fully realized, but not completely appreciated on a precursory reading.

Go with me, then, to that “Valley Green with Corn.”  I know that Valley, too, for I lived there, a neighbor to Poet Reece, and one who loved its plowed fields, corn furrows, and the Nottley River whose waters “roil and run” going onward to the sea.

The poem is one threaded with strings of homesickness.  The poet is writing about his valley where the green corn grows.  He sees it vividly although he is “three thousand miles away.”

For one who was not often far away from the farm that held him even more than the compelling literary drive that propelled him to write, to lecture, to teach, he was, in the summer of 1950 far away at the University of California at Los Angeles.  Having received the Guggenheim Fellowship, he was lecturing during the summer quarter as poet-in-residence at the University.

Among strangers and far from the hills that bound him to the clay of home, he missed the familiar scenes of Choestoe Valley.  His poem flows as he describes the flow of Nottley’s waters through the valley.  The sunlight brightens it in early morn.  Still bright and as a perpetual pulse the water bears onward through shade of birch and willow, until the playful, sunny Nottley reaches the darkness of the Gulf of Mexico, its destination.

Having followed Nottley’s waters, the poet is “there” again, back in the valley.  This time he sees and hears.  The twilight settles with both light and shadow and bats and dove liven the air with whirs of wings and throaty cries.

The house—home—the humble cabin with its chimney wreathed with ivy to cover the cumulative years of dark soot now is regal in its stateliness.  Who but the poet could describe the chimney as a “colonnade of leaves”?  Who but the poet could have the ivy “creep by foot”?

In the yard one person waits.  The romantic would imagine a sweetheart or a wife.  But neither of these did Reece have.  Knowing how he loved and missed his dear mother, who was sick with tuberculosis when he left for California, we can almost say with certainty that it was she to whom he had reference as the one who “waited for a word” from him, three thousand miles away.

The yearning to see each other is expressed as mutual.  The poet wants to speak to her.  But “the palm of space” renders him dumb, and his words “tauten to trembling” (note the alliteration).  Is he about to cry?  Is he so deeply moved he cannot speak?

Has homesickness ever rendered you mute?  Caused you to tremble?  To cry?

Alas, “Darkness obliterates her face.”  As twilight deepens, her face grows indistinct. But wait.  Is there a deeper meaning here, a more severe darkness that might even take the face completely away?  Obliteration.  Can he not even remember the face, its smile, its familiar wrinkles?

“I Know a Valley Green with Corn” is a poem with multiple levels of meaning.  Lyrically pure and rhythmically pleasing, the lines move in cadence to the poet’s thoughts and remembrances, the water and its flow, the valley and its cornfield, house and chimney, creeping ivy, whirring birds…and the lonely persons waiting, a continent apart.  Time and distance are meshed in one crescendo of beauty, a place…a “valley green with corn.”

I Know a Valley Green with Corn

I know a valley green with corn
Where Nottley’s waters roil and run
From the deep hills where first at morn
It takes the color of the sun

And bears it burning through the shade
Of birch and willow till its tide
Pours like a pulse, and never stayed,
Dark where the Gulf’s edge reaches wide.

There, while the twilight spends its dream
Of light and shadow both, the whir
Of bats and cry of doves will seem
A very liveness of the air.

About a house the ivy’s foot
Creeps slowly up to hide the eaves
And wreathe the chimney, dark with soot,
Into a colonnade of leaves.

And one will loiter in the yard
Soft shadowed by the last of day
As if she waited for a word
From lips three thousand miles away

That yearn to speak against her hair
But, dumb behind the palm of space
Tauten to trembling, while there
Darkness obliterates her face.

-Byron Herbert Reece in A Song of Joy and Other Poems, c1952.

[Ethelene Dyer Jones is a retired educator, freelance writer, poet and historian.  She may be reached at e-mail edj0513@alltel.net; phone 478-453-8751; or mail 1708 Cedarwood Road, Milledgeville, GA 31061-2411.  She counts it a great privilege that poet Reece was a neighbor in her community as she grew up and that she knew him.]

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