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).”

It was in the late summer of 1951, when I was thirty-one years old and a candidate for a master’s degree in English at Middlebury College, that I drove to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference to interview Robert Frost for a special issue of Poetry Parnassus. At the time, I was a promising poet as well as an English instructor at the Privet Academy for Girls in Marblehood, Massachusetts, from which I’d graduated in 1938; since the fall of 1950, I’d been accepted into the rigorous master’s program at Middlebury. It was my hope to advance myself in some way, if only by improving my teaching credentials, so that I might apply for a position at a four-year college or university. My thesis adviser at Middlebury happened to be, not entirely coincidentally, the director of the summer Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and he’d encouraged me in both my poetry and my academic studies; kindly Professor Diggs had intervened on my behalf with the famous poet who declined most requests for interviews — at least interviews with “unknown” parties and for little-known publications like Poetry Parnassus.

I was conscious of the great honor of being allowed to interview Robert Frost, the preeminent American poet of the era, and I prepared with more than my usual assiduousness. This meant reading and rereading virtually all of Frost’s poems, many of which, without having intended to, I’d memorized as a schoolgirl. As early as middle school my grandmother had read to me such Frost poems as “The Road Not Taken,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” “Birches,” “Mending Wall,” “Stopping by Woods” (Grandmother’s personal favorite). My English instructors at the Privet Academy had reinforced my admiration for Frost, and for poetry in general; at Berkshire College for Women, I majored in English and published poetry in Berkshire Blossoms, which I edited in my senior year. As a junior instructor in English at Privet, I taught Robert Frost’s poetry alongside the poetry of Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, and Byron. I’d heard Mr. Frost read his poetry several times in Massachusetts and Vermont, always to large, rapturous, and uncritical audiences. The atmosphere at these celebrated readings was reverential yet festive, for Robert Frost had become known as a Yankee sage who was also a Yankee wit — a “homespun” American who was also a seer.

Are you wondering what I looked like? It should certainly be noted that I was a pretty young woman who’d always looked younger than my age, which is, for women, the most satisfying sort of deception. I was not strikingly beautiful, which would have involved an entirely different sort of strategy in confronting the male world — one far more cautious and circuitous — but my sort of wan, delicate blond prettiness seemed preferable to beauty for many men. The striking beauty is the female a man can’t control in the way he might imagine he could control the delicately blond, merely pretty woman who at thirty-one can still pass for a girl of eighteen. Also, I was petite. Men imagine that they can more readily intimidate a petite female.

You would note immediately that I was not married or even engaged by glancing at the third finger of my hand, which was bare. Like most young women of my sort, of the era, I was a virgin, by which is meant not simply, or merely, a physiological state but a spiritual state as well. Pure, innocent, unsullied, artless — these were adjectives that might have described me, and would have been flattering to me, as to any young unmarried girl of the time. Though at thirty-one, and still unmarried, I wasn’t exactly young any longer, I hoped that Mr. Frost, at seventy-seven, would see me differently.

“Excuse me, Mr. Frost? I am . . . Evangeline Fife? I have a . . . an appointment with you at one o’clock . . . ”

The elderly poet’s eyelids fluttered and blinked open. For a startled moment Mr. Frost didn’t seem to know where he was. Outside? On a porch swing? Had he been sleeping? And what time was it?

His first, fearful glance was at the alarm clock on the table beside the swing. Then, blinking again, and even rubbing at his eyes, the poet saw me. Ah, an attractive young stranger standing some ten feet in front of him in the grass, with fine-brushed pale-blond hair and widened, periwinkle-blue worshipful eyes. As a portly peacock might do, quickly the poet took measure of himself, glancing down at his bulky body. His large hands lifted to pat down his disheveled hair, stroke his unshaven jaws, adjust his shirt where it swelled over his belt buckle. He frowned at me and smiled, and there emerged as through parted curtains on a brightly lit stage the New England sage Robert Frost of the famed poetry readings.

“Yes! Of course. I’ve been awaiting you, my dear. You are prompt — one o’clock. But I am prompter, you see, for I am already here.”

Unfortunately, the notebook precariously balanced in the poet’s lap fell to the ground. Clumsy, flummoxed, and sensing himself not so nimble, Mr. Frost seemed disinclined to stoop over and pick it up. So, with a little curtsy, I did. (It was an ordinary spiral notebook, with a black-and-white marbled cover. What I could see of the pages were covered in pencil scrawls.)

Mr. Frost seemed embarrassed, taking the notebook from my fingers. “Thank you, my dear.”

Very like a schoolgirl I stood before the poet, whose gaze moved up and down my body with the finesse of a practiced gem appraiser.

Mr. Frost was murmuring what a lovely surprise this was — that the interviewer for Poetry was me. “So often the interviewer is beetle-browed and grim, if a young man, and thick-waisted and plain as suet, if female.” The poet chuckled mischievously, rubbing his hands together.

A blush rose into my face. Being so complimented, at the expense of other, less fortunate interviewers, was an ambiguous gift: to accept would be vain, to seem to decline would be rude. Yet I had no choice but to murmur an apology: “Except, Mr. Frost, it isn’t Poetry but Poetry Parnassus.

Mr. Frost grunted. He wasn’t sure he’d heard of Poetry Parnassus.

“You will be featured on the cover, Mr. Frost. As I explained in my letter.”

Still, Mr. Frost frowned. A sort of thundery malevolence gathered in his brow.

Quickly I said, “I mean — the entire October issue will be devoted to Robert Frost.”

This placated the poet to a degree. He recovered something of his composure, placing the notebook on the table beside the swing and taking up, in a playful manner, the red plastic flyswatter.

“And what did you say your name is, dear?”

“My name is Evangeline Fife.”

Mr. Frost gazed at me with mirthful eyes. “ ‘Evangeline Fife’ — a truly inspired name. Is it authentic, or shrewdly invented on the spot, to prick the poet’s curiosity?”

What a strange question! My thin-skinned face, already blushing, grew warmer still. My reply was a stammer: “I — I am — my name is authentic, Mr. Frost.”

“As authentic as ‘Robert Frost,’ eh?”

This was very clever! Or so it seemed to me. For “Robert Frost” was the ideal name for the individual who’d created the poetry of Robert Frost.

“Please have a seat, dear Miss Fife. Forgive an old man’s rudeness for not rising at your approach . . . ”

Mr. Frost made a courteous little gesture, simulating the action of rising to his feet without actually moving and extending a hand to me in a gentlemanly manner, though it was imperative that I come to him, to allow my hand to be gripped in his plump dimpled hand and shaken briskly. With a little grunt Mr. Frost tugged me up onto the porch to sit beside him on the swing, but discreetly I took another seat, in a rattan chair.

“I think, my dear, the cushion on that chair is damp?”

Belatedly, I realized that this was so. But I only just laughed airily and insisted that the chair was fine, for I did not wish to sit beside the elderly poet on the swing.

Mr. Frost was slapping the flyswatter lightly against his knee. “If it becomes too damp, my dear, please tell me. We’ll find another place for your — for you.” With mock primness the poet smiled. Wanting me to understand how he’d refrained from saying for your tender little bottom.

Embarrassed, I was about to turn on my tape recorder and ask my first question when, as if he’d only now thought of it, Mr. Frost said, “And who are the Fifes, my dear?”

My heart sank in dismay. I’d never thought of my family and relatives as “the Fifes.” It was rare that I gave them much thought at all.

I managed to murmur a weak reply: “My family and my father’s relatives live in Maine, mostly in Bangor.”

“Bangor! Not a hospitable place for the cultivation of poetry, I think.” Mr. Frost smiled at me, tapping the flyswatter lightly on his knee. “And your mother’s relatives, Miss Fife?”

“She — they — there were ancestors who lived in Salem, Massachusetts . . . ”

Gleefully Mr. Frost said, “Ah, there’s a history, my dear! Were your mother’s Salem ancestors witch-hunters, or witches?”

“I — I don’t think so, Mr. Frost . . . ”

“If you don’t know with certainty, it’s likely that your ancestors were witches. The witch-hunters were the ruling class of the Puritan settlements.”

None of this made sense to me entirely. Mr. Frost chuckled at my look of incomprehension. It would seem to have been an old, much-loved ploy of the poet’s — confounding an interviewer with questions of his own. He’d folded his large hands over his belly, which strained the white cotton shirt above his belt. I had a glimpse of the elderly poet’s exposed navel, a spiraling little vortex of hairs around a miniature knob of flesh as quaint as a mummified snail. Like a New England Buddha the poet reclined, a figure of complacent male wisdom.

Even as I asked Mr. Frost if we might begin our interview, he said, ignoring me, slapping the flyswatter against the palm of a hand, “ ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ — the Americans understand this admonition, deep in their killer souls. All that remains for our fellow citizens is to locate the ‘witch’ among us — for that, like the most vicious hunting dogs, they require guidance.” In the way of a bull who is both rambling and aggressive, prone to whimsical turns the observer can’t predict, Mr. Frost reminisced at length on the subject of witch-hunting and witches and the “witchery” of the poet, for poetry must always be “a kind of code.” By this time I’d switched the tape recorder on and begun to take shorthand in my notebook as well, for I did not want to lose a single precious syllable of Mr. Frost’s. I thought of his bizarre poem “The Witch of Coos”: the bones of a long-ago murder victim hiking up the cellar steps of a remote old farmhouse in New Hampshire, nailed behind the headboard of a marital bed in an attic, like an ancient curse stirring to life. If the poet had written only this singular poem — along with one or two other poems spoken by deranged New England narrators — the reputation of Robert Frost would be that of a master of the gothic.

“Do you believe in witches, Mr. Frost?”

It was the bold desperation of the timid, such an awkward query, made when Mr. Frost paused for breath, and met with a disdainful frown. With a cruel smile Mr. Frost said, “Poetry isn’t in the business of believing, Miss Fife. Believing is a crudeness that is the prerogative of other, lesser beings.”

These words were a sort of rebuff, but I was eager to transcribe the startling aphorism, which was entirely new to me. If Robert Frost had uttered it previously, or committed it to writing, I was unaware of it.

Poetry . . . not in the business of believing.

Believing . . . a crudeness the prerogative of other, lesser beings.

(Very different from the “homespun” Frost so beloved by people like my grandmother!)

As Mr. Frost spoke, his eyes darted shrewdly about, and with sudden alacrity he wielded the flyswatter — crushing a large fly that had come to rest on a porch post nearby. The black, broken body fell to the grass.

“If only the ignorant poetry haters among us could be dealt with so readily!” Mr. Frost chuckled.

I was about to ask Mr. Frost who these “poetry haters” might be. I was prepared to ask him about Shelley’s remark that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” but did not have a chance to speak, for Mr. Frost then reverted to the previous subject of the Fifes — as if he were suspicious of my identity or pretending to be so — asking me when the Fifes had emigrated to the United States and from where, so that I told him that, as far as I knew, the Fifes had come to America in the 1880s, from somewhere in Scotland.

Mr. Frost seemed just slightly disappointed. “Ah well. So no one in your family is guilty of persecuting witches, at least not in the New World! And they obviously were not slave owners, nor did they profit from the robust slave trade of the pre–Civil War United States, as so many did.”

“Yes, sir. I mean, no. They did not.”

“And where in Scotland did they come from, Miss Fife?”

The poet’s perusal of me, the fixedness of his gaze, was making me feel very self-conscious, for it seemed to me that this was the way he’d been looking at the flies that buzzed obliviously about, beyond his reach to swat. “I think — Perth, Inverness . . . ”

Sharply Mr. Frost said, “Indeed! But not Leith?”

I had not dared claim this port of Edinburgh, for I knew that Frost’s mother had been born there.

“No, sir.”

“But have you visited Scotland, Miss Fife? Are you any sort of ‘Scots lass’?” The poet’s mouth twisted in a sneer with the words “Scots lass.”

I told Mr. Frost that I was no sort of “Scots lass,” I was afraid, and that there wasn’t money for that sort of lavish travel in my family.

“Ah, a rebuke! Let me assure you, dear, there wasn’t money for anything like that in the Frost family, either. We were all very — as my poems indicate — very poor, and very frugal.” But Mr. Frost was laughing kindly, seeing the abashed expression on my face. “D’you like the verse of Robbie Burns? ‘O my Luve’s like a red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June; / O my Luve’s like the melodie / That’s sweetly play’d in tune.’ ” Mr. Frost recited the lines with exaggerated rhythm. “Gives doggerel a bad name, eh? All dogs might sue.”

I laughed feebly at this joke. If it was a joke.

A knitted look came into the poet’s forehead. The mocking eyes relented. “Though I will have to concede, Burns has written some decent verse, or rather lines. ‘Ev’n you on murd’ring errands toil’d, / Lone from your savage homes exil’d . . . ’ The man felt strongly, which is the beginning of poetry.”

A ripple of panic came over me: at this rate we would never get to the poet’s life, still less to the substance of the interview, which was the poetry of Robert Frost. This, the man seemed to be hiding behind his back as one might tease a child with a treat the child knows is out of reach.

Daringly I decided to counter with a question of my own: “And where are your people from, Mr. Frost?”

But this was a blunder. Coldly he said: “That sort of elementary biographical information you should already know, Miss Fife. I hope you’ve done some homework in your subject and don’t expect the poor subject to provide information that is publicly available.”

For a moment I could not speak.

“Oh, Mr. Frost, I’m sorry — yes, I do know that you were born in San Francisco and not in New England, as most people think. And your background isn’t rural — you lived in San Francisco until you were eleven, your father was a newspaperman . . . ”

Irritably Mr. Frost said, “That is but literally true. In fact I have a considerable rural background. I was brought back east by my mother after my father’s untimely death, and soon I was farming — my paternal grandfather’s farm in Derry, New Hampshire. It was clear from the start that Rob Frost was a natural man of the soil — a New Englander by nature if not actual birth.”

Shutting his eyes, leaning back to make the swing creak, Mr. Frost began to recite poems from A Boy’s Will and North of Boston with perfect recall — “Mending Wall,” “The Wood-Pile,” “After Apple-Picking” . . .

[1] The Frost poetry quoted in this story is from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem, Henry Holt, 1969.

I am overtired of the great harvest I myself desired.[1]

The poet spoke in a soft, wondering, lyric voice. There was great beauty in this voice. The New England drawl with its spiteful humor had quite vanished. Now it was possible to discern the young Robert Frost in the flaccid and creased face — the poet who’d resembled William Butler Yeats and Rupert Brooke in his dreamy male beauty.

The poet ceased abruptly, as if he’d only just realized what this final line from “After Apple-Picking” meant.

Quickly I asked, “What does that line mean, Mr. Frost? ‘I am overtired . . . ’ ”

“A poem’s ‘meaning’ resides in what it says, Miss Fife.”

The poet cast a look in my direction that had it been a swat from the dingy red flyswatter would have struck me flat in the face. As it was, I couldn’t help recoiling, just perceptibly.

Frost’s second book, North of Boston, contained another of his early masterpieces, “Home Burial.” This poem the poet never read to audiences. I asked him if the man and the woman in the poem were himself and his wife, Elinor, at the time of their first son’s death, in 1899, at the age of three, a death that might have been prevented except for the mother’s Christian Scientist beliefs.

Mr. Frost stared at me for a long moment with something like hatred. His eyes were narrowed, his face contorted in stubbornness. There was no mistaking the man for the kindly New England bard. But he did not answer my question. As if this were an issue that had to be set right, he resumed: “Only a poet who knew rural life intimately could have written any of my country poems. There are no other poems quite like them in American poetry. In England, perhaps the poetry of John Clare and Wordsworth — but these are very different, obviously.”

“Yes, sir. Very different.”

Mr. Frost tossed the flyswatter onto the table and rubbed his large hands. I thought how curious — the backs of his hands were creased and elderly but the palms were smooth. A sly light came into the faded eyes. “I am wondering, Miss Fife —”

“Please call me Evangeline, sir.”

“But you must not call me Rob, you know. That would not be right.”

“Mr. Frost, yes. I would not presume.”

“I have been wondering, Evangeline, are you comfortable in that chair?”

I was not so comfortable. But I quickly smiled and said yes.

“You’ve not become just slightly — damp?”

My bottom was in fact damp, for the cushion was damp and had seeped through the skirt of my dress, my silk slip, and my cotton panties. But I did not care to betray my discomfort.

“Your bottom, dear? Your delightful little bottom? Your white cotton panties — are they damp?”

I hesitated, stunned. I had no idea how to respond to the poet’s taunting query.

Seeing that he’d so discomfited his interviewer, Mr. Frost laughed heartily. He apologized, though not very sincerely: “I’m very sorry, my dear. My late wife chastised me for my coarse barnyard humor. She was very sensitive, of course. But there are females drawn to such humor, I believe.” Mr. Frost paused, gazing at me. The faded-blue eyes moved along my bare slender legs another time to my bare slender ankles, lifted again to my legs, my imagined thighs inside the flaring skirt, and the cloth-covered belt cinching my small waist so tightly a man might fantasize closing his large hands about it.

“You might want to change your panties, Evangeline, and take another seat here on the porch, one without a damp cushion.” Again Mr. Frost patted the swing seat close beside him, and again I pretended not to notice.

I knew that Mr. Frost was teasing me. Yet I had no other recourse than to say, with a blush, that I couldn’t change my panties, since I didn’t have another, dry pair to put on.

“Really, my dear! You came to Bread Loaf to interview the revered Mr. Frost with but a single pair of panties?” Mr. Frost laughed heartily, seeing how embarrassed I was. “Risky, my dear. Reckless. For you must know that the notorious womanizer Untermeyer is on the premises, and the young dashing Ciardi.” Mr. Frost peered at me, to see how I interpreted this remark. (Of course, I had heard of Louis Untermeyer and John Ciardi, both of whom were poet friends and supporters of Robert Frost.) “And you are a poet — poetess? — yourself, I believe.” Mr. Frost lay back against the porch swing at an awkward angle, as if inviting another to lie back with him; the old swing creaked faintly. His fingers were stretched over his belly as over a ribald little drum. “Or is it the lack of foresight of an innocent virgin?” The words “innocent virgin” were lightly stressed.

Seeing that his coarse jesting was meeting with a blank expression in his wanly blond young-woman interviewer, Mr. Frost sighed in an exaggerated sort of disappointment and may have rolled his eyes to an invisible audience. With a wink he said, “Well! You must be the judge, dear girl, of the degree of dampness of your panties. No one else can make that decision, I quite agree.”

What did the great man care about panties! I resolved to ignore these lewd remarks, since they were unworthy of a poet of such distinction, though of course my tape recorder was capturing everything Mr. Frost said.

My notebook was opened to the first page of questions, carefully transcribed in my neat schoolgirl hand, and numbered, but before I could begin, the mischievous old man peered at me again and said, “You are a ‘good’ girl, it seems, Evangeline! I should hope so. And what blue eyes! Of the hue of the New England ‘heal-all’ — has anyone ever told you?”

Did Mr. Frost expect me not to know to which of his famous poems he was alluding? Shyly I said, “Except if the heal-all is white, Mr. Frost.”

“Eh! You are quite correct, my dear.”

The oblique flirtatiousness of the “virgin poetess” had taken Mr. Frost somewhat by surprise. An ideal opportunity! The poet was gazing at me as if hoping to be surprised further. And so in my low, vibratory voice I recited “Design.”

Mr. Frost laughed and took up the flyswatter, striking the porch railing in applause. He couldn’t have been more delighted if a small child had recited his poem without the slightest idea of its meaning.

“That is my most wicked sonnet, my dear. I’m frankly surprised you would have memorized it.”

I responded that “Design” was a perfectly executed Petrarchan sonnet that I’d memorized as a schoolgirl years ago — “Before I understood it.”

“And d’you feel that you understand it now, dear Evangeline?”

I was reluctant to take up this challenge. In my dampened underpants I sat with meekly lowered eyes, turning over a page of my notebook, while on the table the alarm clock continued its relentless tick-tock, tick-tock, which would have been distracting except for the intensity of our conversation.

In a more serious tone Mr. Frost said: “In great poetry there is always something signatory — a word, a phrase, a break in rhythm, a stanza break — that is unexpected. No ordinary versifier could come up with it. In Emily Dickinson’s work, virtually every poem contains the signatory element. In Robert Frost’s work, it’s to be hoped that many poems do. For you see, my dear, in reciting the poem, you blundered with one word — ‘wayside.’ Instead, you recalled the more commonplace ‘roadside.’ ”

Was this so? I tried to recall, confused.

The poet said, more kindly than chiding, “If you can’t sense the difference between the two words, you are not sensitive to the higher calculus of poetry.”

“Mr. Frost, I’m sorry! It was a silly mistake.”

“It was not a silly mistake but a mistake of the sort most people would naturally make, trying to recall a perfect poem. Of course, you could not recall, my dear Evangeline, because you could not have written the poem. As you could not emulate the conditions that gave rise to the poem originally: ‘a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.’ ”

The poet seemed satisfied now. Mr. Frost was the sort of bully, very familiar to girls and women, who is fond of his victim even as he is contemptuous of her, whose fondness for her may be an expression of his contempt, like his teasing. He lay back in the swing, fingers folded over the Buddha belly.

The sun was shifting in the sky; the afternoon had begun to wane. Overhead a soughing in the treetops. The ticking of the windup clock merged with the cries of crickets in the tall grasses at the edge of the clearing. Uncertain what I should do, I glanced through my notebook pages as Mr. Frost sighed and stirred. He opened a single eye and regarded me quizzically: “In your printed piece, I suppose you will mention the alarm clock, dear Evangeline? It’s because I hate watches, you see. Wearing a watch, as fools do, is like wearing a badge of your own mortality.”

These mordant words I recorded in my notebook.

“The poem is always about mortality, you see. The poem is the poet’s mainstay against death.”

In the trees overhead, that soughing sound that is both pleasurable and discomfiting, like a memory to which emotion accrues. Except we have forgotten the emotion.

Belatedly Mr. Frost offered me a glass of lemonade, which I poured for myself, and I replenished the poet’s glass as well, for Mr. Frost was one of those men who seem incapable of lifting a hand to serve themselves, still less others.

I took a small sip of the lukewarm, oversweet lemonade, for my mouth was very dry. Then I resumed the interview with a friendly, familiar sort of question: “Mr. Frost, will you tell the readers of Poetry Parnassus what you hope to convey in your poetry?”

Mr. Frost laughed derisively. “If I hoped to convey something, Miss Fife, I would send a telegram.”

Very good! I laughed and wrote this down.

In my schoolgirl fashion I went through a list of questions aimed to draw from the poet quotable remarks that would be valuable to the readers of Poetry Parnassus, virtually all of them poets themselves. Mr. Frost leaned back, his hands locked behind his neck, stretched and yawned and answered my questions in his New England drawl, which was both self-mocking and serious. Countless times the great poet had been interviewed; countless times he’d answered these very questions, which he’d memorized, as he had memorized his carefully thought-out replies. Unlike other poets, who would have become restless, irritable, and bored being asked familiar questions, Mr. Frost seemed to bask in the familiarity like a religious mystic who never tires of being worshipped. How different this slack-faced old man was from the dreamy-eyed poet in his early twenties on my bedroom wall! Long ago he’d composed his aphoristic replies, worn smooth now as much-handled stones. Free verse: “Playing tennis without a net.” Poetry: “A momentary stay against confusion.” Lyric poetry: “Ice melting on a hot stove.” Love: “An irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.” On invitations to poetry “festivals”: “If I’m not the show, I don’t go.” Opinion of rival Amy Lowell: “A fake.” Opinion of rival T. S. Eliot: “A fake.” Opinion of rival Ezra Pound: “A fake.” Opinion of rival Archibald MacLeish: “A fake.” Opinion of rival Wallace Stevens: “Bric-a-brac fake!” Opinion of rival Carl Sandburg: “Hayseed fake! Always strumming his geetar. Everything about Sandburg is studied — except his poetry.”

From time to time the vatic voice took on a sound of Olympian melancholy, as a god might meditate on the folly of humankind from above. “Everything I’ve learned about life can be summed up in three words: ‘It goes on.’ ” Yet even these somber reflections the poet presented to the interviewer as one might hold out, in the palm of one’s hand, the most exquisite little gems.

“And what is poetry, Mr. Frost?”

“Poetry is — what is lost in translation.” Mr. Frost paused, then continued thoughtfully: “A poem is a stream of words that begins in delight and ends in wisdom. But as it is poetry and not prose, it is a kind of music — a matter of sound in the ear. I hear everything I write.”

This I took up with a canny little query: “Do you mean you hear literally, Mr. Frost? Words in your head?”

Mr. Frost frowned. Though he liked very much to be listened to, he did not like being queried. “I — speak aloud — to myself. The poem is a matter of measured syllables, iambics, for instance, that produce a work of — poetry.” Abruptly he ceased. What sense did this make? The young woman interviewer gazing at him so avidly with her widened heal-all blue eyes had become subtly disconcerting.

“A poem is ‘sound over sense’?”

“No. A poem is not ‘sound over sense’ — not my poetry! The babbling of that pretentious prig Tom Eliot might qualify, or infantile lowercase e. e. cummings — but not the poetry of Robert Frost.”

And again cannily I asked, “Do you ever ‘hear voices,’ Mr. Frost, as you are composing your poems?”

Mr. Frost frowned. The large jaws clenched. A look of something like fright came into the faded icy-blue eyes. “No. I did not — ever — ‘hear voices.’ The poet is not, as Socrates seemed to believe, in the grip of a demon — the poet is in control of the demon.”

“But there is a demon?”

“No! There is not a demon — this is a way of speaking metaphorically. Poetry is the speech of metaphor.” Mr. Frost was frowning at me dangerously. Yet I persisted with my innocent questions:

“But, Mr. Frost, what is metaphor? And why is metaphor the speech of poetry?”

The poet snorted with the sort of derision that would have roused gales of laughter in an admiring audience. “Dear Miss Fife! You might as well ask a mockingbird why he sings as he does, appropriating the songs of other birds, as ask a poet why he speaks as he does. If you have to ask, my dear girl, it may be that you are incapable of understanding.”

This scathing rejoinder, which would have eviscerated another, more subtle interviewer, did not deter me, for I felt the truth of the poet’s observation and did not resent it.

“But you have never heard voices and you’ve never claimed to have second sight?” I pressed these issues, for I knew that Mr. Frost would not volunteer any truth about himself that might detract from his image as the homespun New England bard.

“Miss Fife, I’ve told you — no.

“And you’ve never had — second sight?”

Scornfully Mr. Frost asked, “What is ‘second sight’?”

“The ability to see into the future, Mr. Frost. To feel premonitions — to prophesize.”

Mr. Frost snorted. In his eyes, a small flicker of alarm. “Old wives’ tales, my dear. Maybe in your Scots family, but not in mine.”

Adding then, in a smaller voice, “Why would anyone want to ‘see into the future’! That would be a — a — curse . . . ”

In the elderly poet’s face an expression of such pain, such loss, such grief, such terror of what cannot be spoken, I looked aside for a moment in embarrassment. And for that moment I thought perhaps I would take pity on him, beginning by destroying the humiliating snapshots on my Kodak Hawkeye. Then Mr. Frost resumed his bemused, chiding, superior voice: “Miss Fife! Tell your avid readers that poetry is mystery. Quite above the heads of all. No matter what the poet tries to tell you.”

But readily I countered: “Yet the poet builds on predecessors. Who have been your major influences, Mr. Frost?”

Mr. Frost looked at me startled, as if a child had reared up to confront him. “My — ‘influences’? Very few . . . Life has been my influence.”

“But not Thomas Hardy?”

“No.”

“Not Keats, not Shelley, not Wordsworth, not William Collins —”

“No! Not to the degree that life has been my influence.”

The thundery look in Mr. Frost’s face warned me not to pursue this line of questioning, for of all sensitive issues it is influences that most rankle and roil even the greatest geniuses, the suggestion that others have helped them crucially in their careers. Yet I couldn’t resist asking why Frost had so low an opinion of Ezra Pound, who’d been extremely generous to him when he’d been a struggling unpublished poet at the time they’d first met in England.

Mr. Frost shut his eyes and shook his head vigorously.

“Was Ezra Pound mistaken, or some sort of fake, when he said that A Boy’s Will contained ‘the best poetry written in America in a long time’?”

Mr. Frost’s eyes remained shut. But his large, lined face sagged in an expression of regret.

“Well — even a, a fake can be correct now and then.” Cautiously Mr. Frost opened one of the faded-blue eyes, his gaze fixed on me in mock appeal. “As a clock that can’t keep time is yet correct twice each twenty-four hours.”

Still I wasn’t to be placated. My next question was a sharp little blade I inserted into the fatty flesh of the poet, between the ribs: “But Mr. Frost, weren’t you once a friend of Ezra Pound’s?”

“Miss Fife, why are you tormenting me with Pound? The man is a traitor to poetry, as he was a traitor to his country. A fascist fool, an ingrate. No one can estimate when he became insane — he’s insane now. Enough of Pound!”

“And what is your opinion of Franklin Delano Roosevelt?”

This was a sly question. For Mr. Frost’s Yankee conservatism was well known. Even more than Ezra Pound, FDR enraged the poet, who stammered in indignation: “That — cripple! That socialist fraud! FDR’s brain was as deformed as his body! Tried to hide the fact that he wasn’t a whole man — the idiot voters were taken in. And his wife — homely as the backside of a gorilla! Socialism is plain theft — taking from those of us who work, and work damned hard, and giving what we’ve earned to idlers and shirkers. My wife, Elinor, a sensitive, educated woman, nonetheless raved about FDR that if she could she would’ve killed him! — which suggests the man’s monstrousness, that he would provoke a genteel woman like Elinor Frost to such rage. You may call me selfish, Miss Fife — yes, I am a selfish artist, for I believe that art must be self-generated and has nothing to do with the collective. Doing good is a lot of hokum! I would not give a red cent to see the world improved — for, if it were” — and here Mr. Frost’s voice quavered coyly, since he’d made this remark numerous times to numerous interviewers — “what in hell would we poets write about?”

My shocked response was expected, too. And my widened blue eyes.

“Why, Mr. Frost! You can’t mean that . . . ”

“Can’t I? I certainly do, dear Evangeline. Have you not read my poem ‘Provide, Provide’? In a nutshell, there is Frost’s economic theory: Provide for yourself even if it means selling yourself.” The chuckle came, deep and deadly. “Just don’t expect me to provide for you.

“But — you are acquainted with poverty, Mr. Frost, aren’t you? Quite extreme poverty?”

“No.”

“N-No? Not when you were a child, and later when you were married and trying to support a young family on your grandfather’s farm in Derry . . . ”

“No! The Frosts were frugal, but we were not — ever — poor.

“When your father died in San Francisco, your mother was not left — destitute?”

“Miss Fife, ‘destitute’ is an extreme word. You’re insulting my family. This line of questioning has come to an end.”

Mr. Frost’s face was flushed with indignation. Between us there was an agitation of the air. The very lemonade in my glass quivered.

Seeing that the poet was about to banish me, having lost patience with even my wanly blond good-girl looks, I plunged boldly head-on: “Is it true, Mr. Frost, that as a young man not yet married you were so depressed you tried to commit suicide in the Dismal Swamp of North Carolina?”

Mr. Frost’s cheeks belled in indignation. “ ‘Dismal Swamp’! Who has been telling you such — slander? It is not true . . . ”

“Didn’t you suspect that Elinor had been unfaithful to you, and so you wanted to punish her, and yourself, in a romantic gesture?”

“Ridiculous! It’s for effete poets like Hart Crane to commit suicide — or utter fakes or failures like Chatterton and Vachel Lindsay — not whole-minded poets. A man with a wife and a family to bind him to the earth doesn’t go gallivanting off and kill himself.

“But your poems are filled with images of darkness and destruction, Mr. Frost. The woods that are ‘lovely, dark and deep’ — except the speaker has ‘promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.’ The poem is obviously about a yearning to die but a resistance to that yearning, and a regret over the resistance.”

“Balderdash, Miss Fife! Though you are a pretty lass, you are also a hysterical female — reading into poems nasty little messages that aren’t there.”

Vehemently the poet spoke, and not very coherently. The reddened face swelled and throbbed, yet I persisted: “Why don’t you ever read your ‘dark’ poems to audiences, Mr. Frost? Why only your perpetual favorites, which audiences memorized in school? Are you afraid that they will be offended by the darker, more difficult poems, and wouldn’t applaud you as usual? Wouldn’t give you standing ovations? Wouldn’t buy your books in such great numbers?”

Flush-faced, Mr. Frost told me that I had no idea what I was saying. And that I’d better turn off the damned tape recorder or he would smash it. “Enough! This ridiculous interview is concluded. I suggest that you leave now — exactly the way you crept in.”

Yet daringly I asked Mr. Frost about his patriotic poem of 1942, “The Gift Outright,” with its remarkable line “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” “Could you explain to the readers of Poetry Parnassus what this astonishing statement means?”

Mr. Frost had taken up the dingy red plastic flyswatter and was tapping it restlessly against the swing railing. His voice was heavy with sarcasm: “Assuming the readers of Poetry Parnassus can comprehend English, I see no reason to explain a single word.”

“Mr. Frost, this is indeed a provocative statement!”

“Damn you, Fife, what are you getting at? Frost is not provocative. Frost is consoling. Audiences have loved ‘The Gift Outright’ whether they understand it or not. The poem tells us that our ancestors, who settled the New World, were ‘of the land’ in a way that later generations can’t be, because we are American citizens; and that the ‘land’ — our country, America — is a ‘gift outright.’ It is ours.

Seeing the expression on my face, which was one of utter transparency, the poet said, irritably, “Is it each individual word that perplexes you, Miss Fife, or their collective meaning?”

“Mr. Frost, the collective meaning of your poem seems to endorse manifest destiny — the right of American citizens to claim virtually all of North America. It totally excludes native Americans — the numerous tribes of Indians — who lived in North America long before the European settlers arrived. British, Spanish invaders — ‘Caucasians.’ ”

Mr. Frost cast me a smile of glaring incredulity. “Miss Fife! For God’s sake — are you seriously suggesting that Indians are native Americans?”

“Yes! They are human beings, aren’t they?”

Human, but primitive. Beings, but closer to the animal rung of the ladder than to our own.” Mr. Frost tapped the flyswatter on his knee with a dangerous squint of his eye. “You may put in your interview, Miss Fife, that Robert Frost believes in civilization — which is to say Caucasian civilization.

“But, Mr. Frost, the indigenous people you call ‘Indians’ were the original native Americans. Caucasians from the British Isles and from Europe came to this continent as settlers, explorers, and tradesmen. With no respect for the native Americans living here, they appropriated the land, exploited and attempted genocide against the natives, and are doing so even now, in less obvious ways, in many parts of the country. And your poem ‘The Gift Outright,’ which might have addressed this issue with a poet’s sharp eye, instead —”

Smirking, Mr. Frost interrupted with a sudden slap of the flyswatter: “Miss Fife! ‘Genocide’ is a pretty highfalutin term for what our brave settlers did — conquered the wilderness, established a decent civilization . . . ”

“But there was not a ‘wilderness’ here — there were Indian civilizations, living on the land. Of course, the original inhabitants were not city dwellers — they lived in nature. But surely they had their own civilizations, different from our own?”

How surprised Mr. Frost was by the passion with which I spoke!

“Mr. Frost — is it possible that your audiences have been deceived, and that you aren’t a homespun New England bard but something very different? An emissary from dark places? An American poet who sees and defends the very worst in us, without apology — in fact, with a kind of pride?”

“And what is wrong with pride, Miss Fife?”

A fierce light shone in the poet’s faded-blue eyes. His breath came audibly and harshly. But the interviewer was suffused with a sort of ferocity, too. Squaring her slender shoulders, leaning forward so that her pale-blond hair fell softly about her face, daring to inquire in her throaty, thrilled voice that hardly seemed the voice of a young virginal woman: “Did you not once say, Mr. Frost, imagining that your remark wouldn’t be recorded, that you’d have liked never to see your children again — those who were living at the time and causing you so much trouble, that they were — are — ‘accursed’ —”

“I — I did not say that . . . Who has been spreading such lies? I — did not . . . ”

“You’ve written about this in your sly, coded poems. Your inability to feel another’s pain, your inability to touch another person. You’ve revealed everything in your poems that has been hidden in your heart. Which is why, in public, you deny your poems as one might deny paternity to a deformed or disfigured child.”

Frost uttered these words formally, as if the statement should be sufficient to persuade the interviewer. But the statement did not have the desired effect.

“This is false — this is wrong! I have tried to explain —” Mr. Frost drew a deep breath, shut his eyes tight, and began to recite through clenched jaws: “to be too subjective with what an artist has managed to make objective is to come upon him presumptuously and render ungraceful what he in the pain of his life had faith he’d made . . . graceful.” [2]

[2]  From Robert Frost and Sidney Cox, Forty Years of Friendship, by William R. Evans, University Press of New En­gland, 1981.

“Mr. Frost, what do those words even mean? That those who see in your poetry something of the terribly flawed and dishonest man who wrote the poems are charged with being ‘ungraceful’? While the poet, who feeds like a vampire on the lives of others, is imagined as being ‘graceful’?”

“But — that’s what poetry is.

“Not all poetry! Not all poets. The subject today is you.

“I — I — I have no reply to that, Miss” — the flyswatter had fallen from the poet’s fingers onto the ground; his fingers appeared frozen, clawlike, as if cramped — “whoever you are, and wherever you are from — hell . . . ”

“But do you believe in hell, Mr. Frost?”

“I — I think that I do . . . I must . . . I believe — ‘this is hell, nor am I out of it.’ That grim and beautiful line of Marlowe’s, I do believe.”

This concession, rare for the poet, failed utterly to placate the interviewer, who pursued her panting quarry like a huntress and showed him no mercy.

“Mr. Frost. Do you remember when your daughter Lesley was six years old? When you were still a young man — a young father — living on that wretched farm in Derry, New Hampshire? You woke your daughter with a loaded pistol in your hand and you forced the terrified child to come downstairs in her nightgown, and barefoot, to the kitchen, where the child saw her mother seated at the table, her hair in her face, weeping. Your wife had been an attractive woman once, but living with you in that desolate farmhouse, enduring your moods, your rages, your sloth, your fumbling incapacity as a farmer, your sexual bullying and clumsiness, already at the age of thirty-one she’d become a broken, defeated woman. You told the child Lesley that she must choose between her mother and her father — which of you was to live and which to die. ‘By morning, only one of us will be alive.’ ”

“No. That did not — happen . . . It did not.”

“Yet Lesley remembers it vividly and will reproach you with the memory throughout your life, Mr. Frost. Is she mistaken?”

“My daughter is — yes, mistaken . . . My eldest daughter hates me without knowing me. She has never understood me . . . ”

“And what of your daughter Irma, committed to a mental hospital? Why did you give up on Irma when you might have helped her more? Were you exasperated and disgusted by her, as an extreme form of yourself? Your wild talk, your turbulent moods, your ‘dark places’? You gave up on Irma as you’d given up on your sister Jean years before. Mental illness frightens you, like a contagion.”

Mr. Frost protested weakly: “I did all I could for Irma — and for my sister Jean. I could not be expected to give up my entire life for them, could I? All that I’d done they felt no gratitude for, but were encouraged in their wildness and blame of me . . . ”

“Why was poor Irma so obsessed with being kidnapped and raped? Forced into prostitution? You were scornful of Irma’s terrors. You’d told her bluntly when she was just a girl that she was so unattractive she needn’t fear being raped, no man would be interested in her sexually, she wasn’t worth ‘twenty cents a throw.’ Later, to Robert Lowell, you said laughingly that Irma Frost couldn’t have ‘made a whorehouse.’ ”

“That is not true. That is — a lie, slander . . . Lowell was a sick, distressed person. I spoke to him in a way to lift his spirits, to entertain him. He’d thought that he was bad, but old Frost was badder. But none of it was meant to be taken literally . . . ”

“And your son — your only surviving son. He’d said, ‘My father is ashamed of me. My father does no more than glance at my poetry and push it aside.’ He’d said, ‘Sometimes I feel tight-strung — like a bow. I feel that I want to — that I must — be shot straight to the heart of . . .’ And your son’s voice would trail off, and he would hide his face in his hands.”

The interviewer spoke in a soft condemning voice. The poet stared at her, uncomprehending. Small hairs stirred at the nape of his neck. It was very hard for him to draw breath. Barely he managed to stammer, “Who? Who is — ‘he’? Who are you speaking of . . . ” In desperation he snatched up the poetry notebook in both hands as if to shield himself with it.

“Mr. Frost, you know that he burned his poetry. Fifteen years of poems. You thought so little of him you never gave him permission to live. He was always your ‘son.’ You never relinquished him, though you never loved him. He was thirty-eight when he died of a gunshot wound to the head. He seemed much younger, as if he’d never lived. All he wanted was approval from you, a father’s blessing — but you withheld it.”

“I’ve told you — I don’t know what — who — you are talking about . . . ”

“Your son, Mr. Frost. Your son, Carol, who killed himself.”

“My son did not — kill — himself . . . He died of a regrettable accident.”

“Your son you named with a ridiculous girl’s name, for some whim of yours. He was so unhappy with ‘Carol’ he changed it to ‘Carroll’ — to your displeasure. It was too late; the damage had been done. In his poetry he wrote of how you’d sucked the marrow out of his bones. You’d left him nothing, you’d taken his manhood from him. He knew your secret: you could never love any of your children, you could love only yourself.”

Frost shook his massive head from side to side, frowning.

“I — I loved Carol. He knew . . . ”

“You never told him you loved him! He didn’t know.

“Carol was weak — immature. He was not a man. How then could he write genuine poetry? He was a versifier — his best poems were pale imitations of mine. He was a child who traced drawings in Crayola. His rhymes were stolen from mine — ‘though,’ ‘snow,’ ‘slow,’ ‘near,’ ‘seer.’ Worse were his poems in which he attempted vers libre.” With the verve of a litigator arguing his case, the poet spoke with a righteous sort of confidence: “My son thought that ‘no one loved him.’ Pitiful! His mind was one cloud of suspicion . . . his cloud became our cloud. Well, he took his cloud away with him. We never gave him up. He ended it for us — the protracted misery and obstinacy of a failed life.” A brooding moment, and then: “It was an error to marry — initiating a sequence of worse errors, the Frost children. Soon it came to me, though I thought I’d kept it a secret, that I didn’t care in the slightest if I ever saw any of them again — at least, after my dear daughter Marjorie died. Her I did love, I loved very much. Yet what good was my love? I could not save the beautiful girl. She died as the child of anyone might have died — a disappearance. ‘The only other sound’s the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake’ — nothing more in nature than that, of grief. A poet ought not to marry and procreate. That was the fear of my wife, Elinor — she would drag me down into her mortality and we would make each other miserable, which we did. Poetry is more than enough of procreation. Life is the raw material, like dough — but it is only raw, and it is only dough. No one cares to eat mere dough.

The poet’s large, sagging face contorted into a look of sheer disdain. Astonishingly he reared up onto his legs, which barely held his bulk. The porch swing creaked in protest. The notebook fell from his lap onto the grass. Like a wounded bull, suffused with an unexpected strength by pain and outrage, the poet swayed and glared at his tormentor. He was stricken, but he would not succumb. His enemies had assailed him cruelly and shamefully, as they had throughout his beleaguered life, but he would not succumb.

“You — whoever you purport to be — an ‘interviewer’ for a third-rate poetry journal — what do you know of me? You may know scattered facts about my life, but you don’t know me. You haven’t the intelligence to comprehend my poems any more than a blind child could comprehend anything beyond the Braille she reads with her fingertips — only just the raised words, nothing of the profound and ineffable silence that surrounds the words.”

Taken by surprise, the young blond interviewer stumbled to her feet also, a deep flush in her face; in dampened undergarments and floral-pink shirtwaist she gripped the straw bag and backed away in alarm.

Jabbing at this adversary with his forefinger, the enraged poet charged: “You are nothing. People like you don’t exist. You’ve never been called the ‘greatest American poet of the twentieth century’ — you’ve never won a single Pulitzer Prize, let alone several Pulitzer Prizes — and you never will. You have never roused audiences to tears, to applause, to joy — you’ve never roused audiences to their feet in homage to your genius. You are barely qualified to kiss the hem of genius — or another part of the poet’s anatomy. All you can do, people like you, contemptible little people, spiritual dwarves, is to scavenge in the detritus of the poet’s life without grasping the fact that the poet’s life is of no consequence to the poet. You snatch at the dried and outgrown skin of the snake — the husk of a skin the living snake will cast off as he moves with lightning speed out of your grasp. You fail to realize that only the poetry counts — the poetry that will prevail long after the poet has passed on and you and your ilk are gone and forgotten, as if you’d never existed.”

The poet stumbled down the porch steps, not quite seeing where he was going. Something glaring was exploding softly — the sun? Blazing, blinding light? Overhead, an agitated soughing in the trees? He had banished her, the demon. His deep-creased face was contorted with rage. The faded icy-blue eyes were sharpened like ice picks. In the grass, the poet’s legs failed him, he began to fall, he could not break the momentum of his fall, a fall that brought him heavily to the ground. All his life he’d been eluding the petty demons that picked at his ankles, his legs, the petty demons that whispered curses to him — that he was bad, he was wicked, he was cruel. All his life they’d tried to elicit him to injure himself, as his only surviving son, Carol, had injured himself, and succumb to madness. In the vast reaches of the Dismal Swamp he’d first seen the demons clearly and retained the vision through the decades. He had blundered, but he had escaped in time. He was not going mad — but madness swept through him like a powerful emetic.

Somehow, he was lying in the grass. Gnats flung themselves against his damp eyes. He’d fallen from a great height, like a toppled statue, too heavy to be righted. His fury was choking him, like a towel stuffed down his throat. Somewhere close by a clock was ticking loudly, mockingly. He would have grabbed hold of the damned clock and thrown it — but the taunting girl-interviewer had vanished.

His notebook! Precious notebook! It had slipped from his fingers. He strained to reach it, to hold it against his chest. Strangely it seemed that he was suddenly bare-chested, the shame of his soft, slack torso, the udderlike breasts, exposed to all the world. He could not call for help; the shame was too deep. The poet was not a weakling to call for help. The obstinacy of his aging flesh had been a source of great frustration to him and shame, but he had not succumbed to it, and he would not.

Just barely, the poet managed to seize hold of a corner of the notebook. The strain of so reaching caused him to tremble, to quaver — yet he drew the notebook to him and pressed it against his chest. His loud-thumping heart would be protected from harm, from the assault of his enemies. For here was his shield, as in antiquity — the warrior has fallen but is shielded from the pain of mortality.

“Mr. Frost? Oh — Mr. Frost —”

Already they’d found him, he’d scarcely had time to rest. He was unconscious yet breathing. The great poet had fallen in wild grass in front of the Poet’s Cabin at Bread Loaf, Vermont, in a languorous late afternoon in August 1951.

Yet the poet was breathing. No mistaking this, the poet was breathing.


This is a work of fiction, though based on (limited, selected) historical research. See Robert Frost: A Biography, by Jeffrey Meyers (1996).

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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

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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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