In the summer of 1977, I lived in a cabin on the south shore of a small mountain lake in the panhandle of Idaho, up near the Canadian border. By some quirk of long-ago governmental land title issuance, the cabin was the only dwelling on the lake. The lake was roughly circular, about three-quarters of a mile in diameter. I spent a great deal of time reading in a deck chair on the lawn beside the water or out on the dock. An odd detail that I recall: I was reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's August 1914 much of that summer.
Every week or so, a moose would swim across the lake from the north shore at a steady, leisurely pace. Each time this occurred, he or she would swim in a straight line towards the dock. It emerged slowly out of the water and stepped into the reeds and cat-tails along the shore, only a few yards from the cabin. It then walked calmly off into the trackless woods, paying me no mind.
Stanley Spencer, "Garden at Whitehouse, Northern Ireland" (1952)
Twenty years later, thinking about the moose, I felt prompted to write this:
Watching the Lake
One summer, day after day, I watched a lake.
Nothing of that time remains in my hands.
Even then, I knew it would soon be gone.
None of it was, of course, mine to hold on to --
I'd watch the wind ripple from shore to shore
Till the rushes whispered in the shallows;
Once a week, a moose swam across the lake,
Stepped ashore, and walked off into the woods.
None of this, I knew, would pass my way again.
sip (October, 1997).
I offer this not for its negligible poetic merit, but solely as a record of the persistence of the moose in my memory.
Stanley Spencer, "The Ferry Hotel Lawn, Cookham" (1936)
I am ashamed to say that I did not begin to go deeply into the poetry of Robert Frost until about 15 years ago, when I decided to move beyond the old chestnuts. Six or seven years ago, I came across this poem for the first time.
The Most of It
He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff's talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush -- and that was all.
Robert Frost, A Witness Tree (1942).
So that's it. End of story. Nothing earth-shattering. A simple anecdote about life and poetry 30 years in the making. You can imagine my emotions as I came to the end of "The Most of It." Surprise and joy, of course. And then a kind of serenity. All serenity being short-lived.
I do not propose to draw some sort of all-purpose, all-encompassing moral to the story. Poetry is not life. Life is not poetry. But, still . . .
Stanley Spencer, "Scarecrow, Cookham" (1934)