Story — From the November 2013 issue

Lovely, Dark, Deep

( 11 of 11 )

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:

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