Story — From the November 2013 issue

Lovely, Dark, Deep

Bread Loaf, Vermont
August 18, 1951

Here was the first surprise: the great man was much heavier, his body much more solid, than I’d anticipated. You would not have called him fat, but his torso sagged against his shirt like a great udder, and his thighs in summer trousers were fleshy, like those of a middle-aged woman. The sensitive-young-poet face of the photos (at least, the photos I’d affixed to my bedroom wall) had coarsened and thickened; deep lines now bracketed the eyes, as if the seventy-seven-year-old poet had too often scowled or squinted. The snowy-white hair so often captured in photographs, like ectoplasm lifting from the poet’s head, was thinner than any photograph had suggested, and not so snowy white, in fact disheveled, as if the poet had only just risen, dazed, from sleep. The entire face was large — larger than you expect a poet’s face to be — and the thick jaws were covered in glittering little hairs, as if the poet hadn’t shaved for a day or two. The eyelids were drooping, nearly shut.

Illustration by Steven Dana

Illustration by Steven Dana

“Excuse me — Mr. Frost?”

My voice was tentative, apologetic. My heart had begun to beat erratically like some small, perishable creature — a butterfly or moth — might beat against its confinement. For here was the great man — so suddenly. In my nervous excitement I’d anticipated walking much farther along the path to his cabin in the woods — the Poet’s Cabin, as it was called. I’d anticipated knocking at a door and waiting for the door to be opened. (Surely not by the legendary Robert Frost himself but by an assistant or secretary? Widowed since 1938, as I’d made it a point to know, the poet would not have been protected by a wary wife, at least.) Instead, Mr. Frost was awaiting his interviewer outside the cabin on a small porch, slouched in a swing, seemingly dozing, slack-jawed, a scribble of saliva on his lips. In the bunched crotch of his baggy old-man trousers was an open notebook, and on the floor of the plank porch was the poet’s pencil.

Mr. Frost seemed to have drifted into a trance-like sleep in the midst of writing a poem. I felt a stab of excitement at such unexpected intimacy — Gazing upon Robert Frost asleep! On a table beside the porch swing was a pitcher of what appeared to be lemonade and two glasses, one of which was a quarter filled; a strangely loud-ticking alarm clock; and a dingy red flyswatter.

Like an earnest schoolgirl, I was dressed in a pink floral-print cotton shirtwaist with a flared skirt that fell below the knee, and I carried a large straw satchel weighted down with books, tape recorder, notebook, wallet. Out of this straw satchel came, now, quick into my hands, my newly purchased Kodak Hawkeye. For it seemed that Mr. Frost hadn’t heard my faltering voice, hadn’t opened his eyes. In my shaky hands I positioned the camera, peered through the viewfinder at the shadowy figure within with its ghostly white hair, dared to press the shutter. Very carefully then I wound the film for the next picture.

How strangely vulnerable Mr. Frost looked to me, like an older relative, a father or a grandfather, whom you might glimpse lying about the house carelessly groomed and only partly dressed. It was said that the poet was vain of his appearance and insisted on exerting veto power over most photographs of himself, and so it was by chance I’d come upon him in this slovenly state between sleep and wakefulness. On his bare feet, well-worn leather house slippers.

I took seven surreptitious pictures that afternoon of Mr. Frost slack-jawed and dozing on a porch swing. Sold to a private collector, resold to another collector, and one day to be placed in the Robert Frost Special Collections in the Middlebury College Library, discreetly catalogued “Bread Loaf August 1951 (photographer unknown).”

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is the author, most recently, of the novels The Accursed and Daddy Love. Her forthcoming novel, Carthage, will be published by Ecco in January. She was a 2011 recipient of the President’s Medal in the Humanities.

More from Joyce Carol Oates:

Fiction From the July 2004 issue

The cousins

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  • Anon.

    Excuse my obtuseness. This is labelled ‘story’ not ‘fiction’. Is it to be taken literally?

    • Anon.

      Oops. Nevermind. Should have googled it first.

  • creepingdoubt

    Brilliant.

  • FredRR

    Reads like Joyce Carol Oates has been getting a lot of inspiration from http://notalwaysright.com/ or something.

  • kate

    As the first film in a new franchise, Man of Steel brought more bucks than Batman Begins. http://tiny.cc/15g94w

  • Bill

    There is a long “literary” history of authors bashing other writers, and sometimes the bashing gets media attention. I wonder if the hope for media attention motivated the staff of Harper’s to print this particular work, so lackluster (even boring) in comparison to Oates’s best performances. I wonder because, after suffering through every dragged-out and source-dependent word of it, I could not detect any intrinsic literary merit in the piece itself as a work of art worthy of publication in Harper’s, much less a reader’s time. I’d love to know what the staff found to be so artistically compelling about “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” which (alas) was hardly deep, dark or lovely.

  • Narby1

    I recall that my college American Literature professor, Henry A. Myers, was not high on Frost Pound or Eliot, and I’m pretty sure he was an admirer of FDR. He rated Whitman number one, and was fond of Dickinson and, of course, Melville and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Although she really “did a job on him,” Oates’s “story” will lure me to read Frost again.

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