Memory Mixes with Desire in April's Sweet Cruelty


April 18, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- As the trial of one of the alleged slayers of Pam Basu opened in Howard County this week, some of us were fortunate enough to be able to walk in the April sunshine.

''April is the cruelest month,'' begins T.S. Eliot's ''The Waste Land.'' It is a famous line, but peculiar, like Eliot himself. Why should April be considered cruel, when the grass is so green and blossoms of impossible colors dance on the cool spring wind? For years this assertion of Eliot's has perplexed his readers, who sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn, wondering what on earth he had against April.

But in fact there are various kinds of cruelty in April.

There is an implicit cruelty in the painful fact, annually remembered as the first crocuses open in March or even February, that this magical time of renewal is so transitory. It can't be held; it can hardly be savored before it is gone. It will come again, of course, but not for all of us, and not for any of us in quite the same way.

Here on the farm the last of our 37 calves was born the other day, ending a successful calving season in which nature required only minimal assistance. Now the long hours of winter work are forgotten in the pleasure of seeing the calves at play. Their life right now is idyllic, warmed by the sun above and the milk in their bellies. Never again will they have it so good, but fortunately they don't know that.

It is the human curse to know what the calves don't, that each blue and green spring day may be the last of the onrushing year, and that while there may be other Aprils to come there's no guarantee we'll be able to enjoy them. Maybe we'll be busy, or maybe it will rain.

A.E. Housman understood that, and though he could be philosophical about such things as rained-out springs he didn't deny the pain they cause:

''There's one spoilt spring to scant our mortal lot,/ One season ruined of our little store./ May will be fine next year as like as not:/ Oh ay, but then we shall be twenty-four.''

In the woods, this is the best time of year to go for a walk. There is mayapple, here jack-in-the-pulpit. Through the bare branches overhead the sun pours down benignly. If a strange bird sings you can usually see it, right there. Ticks and deerflies haven't yet appeared, briars and poison ivy haven't choked the paths.

But none of this will last. By May -- ''depraved May,'' the peculiar Mr. Eliot called it -- the woods will be a thick green sea, aboil with the life and fecundity that April only promises. It will still be interesting to go there, but it will not be as kind, not as gentle.

April is a wonderful month to spend time with a child, examining all the newness that's everywhere under our noses. If Pam Basu were alive, she could sit on the grass with her 2-year-old daughter Sarina and marvel with her at the way the dandelions seem to explode into bloom overnight.

But Dr. Basu won't see any more Aprils. She was dragged to her death last summer when two persons stole her car, with her child in it, and she tried desperately to stop them. For her husband and child this April is not, indeed, without cruelty.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a religious man, saw divine truth in the brief perfection of spring, as well as a metaphor for mankind's inexorable journey away from the innocence of childhood:

''What is all this juice and all this joy?/ A strain of the Earth's sweet being in the beginning/ In Eden garden. -- Have, get, before it cloy,/ before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning.''

The lawyer for the young man now on trial for Dr. Basu's death concedes that his client might have been there, while an unspeakable and pointless crime was being committed, but asserts that ''for the most part [he] had an innocent presence.'' The defendant is only a teen-ager, after all.

Our system of jurisprudence will establish, as well as mortal institutions can, the guilt or innocence of the young gentleman. It will also judge the actions of his older friend, no doubt a role model, who is similarly accused and will be tried separately.

Punishment is another matter. Really, the only fitting earthly punishment for persons found guilty of this particular crime would be for them to be dragged slowly behind a car through crowds of Howard County citizens. But banish that primitive thought. This is not the frontier. Perhaps rehabilitation will be possible after all, and the defendants in the Basu case will eventually become professors.

Eliot, who as a young poet discerned cruelty in a month where others saw only love and blossoms, did not live a violent life. Surely he never met a carjacker. In his poetry he does not address the issue of mundane everyday unmitigated evil, and what's to be done about it.

Often, little or nothing is done. Often, in contemporary life, the only available responses to evil seem empty and ineffectual. But that Eliot would have understood. ''The Hollow Men'' ends with another famous couplet, perfect for our hand-wringing era:

''This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.''

Peter A. Jay's column appears here each Sunday.

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