Poetry: My Consciousness

Issue 2.1

by Lea Moore

I am a smoothie.
I want my fish to die.
The metal feels smooth under my fingertips.
The light makes the green fern almost translucent.
The spices invade my nose from two stories down.
The blueberry skin lingers in the cracks of my mouth.
There is a hidden banging as he strikes the keys.
The. Clock. Moves. So. Slow.
The chocolate-butter aroma warms my face.
Scot wants to be like New York City.
The light solidifies the green fern.
The leaves squat in the ceramic pot the color or every Cape Cod guest bedroom with the sandy,
white sea shells in the clear candy jar.
‘Badonk-a-donk’ wakes me up with a smile.
If he told his story, she would be an alien.
That indicates there is a very strong relationship here.

I zoned out.

They were as chatty as turtles.
He plunged into the sink and swam with the eels.
Lea is confused.
He will scoot in and she will scoot to the side so he will scoot to the side.
I scalped her book.
Shut up! I’m trying to observe this painting!
J’ai faim. (aka I have hunger.)
My zumba instruction video was having a fantastical time.

Just like how bananas, lemon juice, blueberries, and coconut water
(oh and with a hint of cayenne of course)
can sing sweet music in my mouth,
my thoughts love to party in my brain.


Lea Moore is a high school senior. We are proud to be her first publication.

Terms of Concealment: Junot Díaz and the Language of Masculinity

IMAGE BY: Rick Reinhard/Flickr

by Jonathan Russell Clark

Junot Díaz has pretty much made a career for himself with one narrator. We first meet Yunior, a Dominican raised in New Jersey, like Díaz himself, in Drown, published in 1996. The stories that make up Drown show Yunior as an adolescent or a young man, growing up and coming into his own. In one story, “Aurora,” we get our first taste of one of Yunior’s most distinct qualities: his rampant philandering. Yunior’s roommate, Cut, doesn’t like Aurora, and “never gives [Yunior] the messages she leaves with him.” Yunior doesn’t care, though, because the notes are “bullshit mostly, but every now and then she leaves one that makes me want to treat her better.” Through and through, Yunior is always direct about the way he treats women, and over the years it doesn’t really change. Sixteen years later, with the publication of This Is How You Lose Her, we find Yunior older but not any wiser. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” opens like this:

Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but as you’re a totally batshit cuero who didn’t ever empty his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty. Sure, over a six-year period, but still. Fifty fucking girls? Goddamn. Maybe if you’d been engaged to a super open-minded blanquita you could have survived—but you’re not engaged to super open-minded blanquita. Your girl is a bad-ass salcedeña who doesn’t believe in open anything; in fact the one thing she warned you about, that she swore she would never forgive, was cheating. I’ll put a machete in you, she promised. And of course you swore you wouldn’t do it. You swore you wouldn’t. You swore you wouldn’t.

And you did.

This extended passage displays another of Yunior’s most prominent characteristics: his voice. Díaz is ubiquitously praised for his prose style, his mix of whip-smart prose, low-brow colloquialism, remarkable rhythm, and Spanish words dotting the pages. Put together, these aspects of Díaz’s writing make it energetic, authentic and utterly singular. Notice, though, in the above passage, where the Spanish words appear. Let’s go through them. There’s “sucia,” a Spanish dysphemism for promiscuous women, and “cuero,” another derogatory term for an overly sexual person. Then there’s “blanquita,” which means “white girl,” and “salcedeña,” which refers to a person from Salcedo, a city in the Dominican Republic. What’s interesting about these terms isn’t what they mean so much as how they’re employed: Díaz always uses them when discussing relationships, both sexual and emotional. His Spanish, then (which is never translated for non-Spanish speakers), not only adds to the authenticity of the narrator, but also functions, for the English-speaking reader, as a distancing device between Yunior and his actions, his seeming lack of moral compass. This usage both emphasizes the words and obfuscates their meaning. And finally, because Spanish is Yunior’s native language, his method of obscuring his inner self employs the words of his earliest—and one might argue, most fundamental—form of expression.

Díaz has been raiding this shit since his first collection. In the title story, “Drown,” another feature of Yunior’s life is explored: his rigorous masculinity. The culture Yunior comes up in isn’t exactly the most open-minded in the world, and a male’s perceived masculinity becomes an important trait to defend. “Drown,” then, captures many of Díaz’s recurring themes—sex, masculinity, language—and subtly investigates Yunior’s relationship to all three. Yunior describes what he and his friends do for fun, which consists mostly of going out to bars and failing to pick up women. Afterwards, they’ll “pass the fag bar, which never seems to close. Patos are all over the parking lot, drinking and talking.” Alex, one of Yunior’s cohorts, sometimes stops the car and says, “Excuse me,” and “when somebody comes over from the bar he’ll point his plastic pistol at them, just to see if they’ll run or shit their pants.” Yunior tells this story with a narrative straight-face, implying that such outward homophobia permeates his peer group.

When Yunior first mentions Beto, the subject of the story, he recalls “the way we stole, broke windows, the way we pissed on people’s steps and then challenged them to come out and stop us.” More than homophobic, there is a thread of violence pervasive here as well. They’ll urinate on an innocent person’s home and then challenge them. Ostentatious masculinity does not even need to be provoked; it is offered, presented, displayed.

Some critics find Díaz’s authenticity to be dubious, as if his vernacular were outdated. Critic Rob Jacklosky claims “there is too much reliance on ‘street’ constructions that already sound quaint, such as the use of ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’ as an adverb, and ‘dope’ as an adjective.” Though Jacklosky’s intimate knowledge of American-Dominican nomenclature usage is never validated, it’s safe to say that he’s way the hell off here. He seems to believe that if certain phrases disappear from the popular zeitgeist, it must mean they’ve stopped being used by individual communities, as if we’ve stopped saying “cool” decades after its introduction into American language, or “hip” or “awesome” or “sweet.” Even more insidious is the implicit claim here that novels or stories that do not feature up-to-date vernacular are somehow automatically irrelevant. Does Jacklosky have any idea how young people speak? People still say “dope.” But he paints Díaz’s use of “street” language as disingenuous, the kind of “street lingo only an upper-eastside editor could see as cutting-edge.” Rather, Díaz’s language is filled with the kind of lingo that only tone-deaf critics would see as “quaint.”

Díaz’s stories exist in a real place filled with real people, which makes the pervasive homophobia and its underlying violence all the more rattling to read. As Joshua Jelly-Schapiro has it, these stories are “alternately set in an impoverished Dominican campo where young boys grow accustomed, each year, to shitting worms that their mamis don’t have the medicine to treat, to the scarcely-better life of public housing in New Jersey, where those same boys hide the ‘government cheese’ when girls come over.” Yunior is even shown to be a smart kid (which considering that he’s a Diaz stand-in isn’t all that surprising). When Yunior tells the reader about his now-defunct relationship with Beto, he remembers a telling incident, which involves a sign at the neighborhood pool decreeing “No Expectorating”:

Beto hadn’t known what expectorating meant though he was the one leaving for college. I told him, spitting a greener by the side of the pool.

Shit, he said. Where did you learn that?

I shrugged.

Tell me. He hated when I knew something he didn’t. He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me under. He was wearing a cross and cutoff jeans. He was stronger than me and held me down until water flooded my nose and throat. Even then I didn’t tell him; he thought I didn’t read, not even dictionaries.

Yunior is smart, but he refuses to be ostentatious about it, quite a far cry from his otherwise masculine theatrics. Moreover, it is important to note that it is a single word that functions to show how different Yunior and Beto are, yet how similar. They’re both proud and competitive, especially about intelligence, but Yunior keeps his under wraps, as he doesn’t view himself—or maybe he doesn’t want to view himself—as intellectually curious. Beto, on the other hand, “hated everything about the neighborhood” and was “delirious at the thought” of leaving for college. Yunior, however, “wasn’t like him,” for he “had another year to go in high school, no promises elsewhere.” Yunior has no ambitions, and he seems to be suspicious of Beto’s.

Just as their competitive intelligence is highlighted by a single word, so too is their sexuality. Yunior introduces Beto as a “pato,” a derogatory term for a gay person, and uses the word again when he and his friends drive past the gay bar and make fun of the patrons. Why does this mean-spirited term keep arising? Well, it seems as if Yunior wants to distance himself from the word and its implications in his own life. When Yunior and Beto were younger, best friends who did everything together, Beto shows Yunior one of his father’s pornos. As they watch, Beto reaches into Yunior’s shorts and jacks him off. A similar event happens again, but Yunior stops it before it ends. Now, years later, Beto’s back in town from college, but Yunior only half-heartedly seeks him out, which basically amounts to avoiding him. In the end, he doesn’t see Beto, and probably won’t ever again.

Nowhere in “Drown” does the word ‘gay’ appear. All we get instead is “pato” and “fag.” Yunior won’t use the word, because if he does it will somehow turn into something permanent, something he can’t rationalize away by saying “Twice. That’s it,” as he does with Beto. He can’t face his former best friend, just as he can’t say the word that might be true, recalling Alfred Douglas’s famous phrase, “the love that dare not speak its name.” For a young man in a masculine world that’s also suspicious of intelligence and ambition, there are just some things you can’t say, some things you just can’t be.

Yet these cue (or I suppose anti-cue) words are in Spanish, Yunior’s native language, so the thematic dynamics are distinct between the text-to-reader meaning and the Yunior-to-Spanish meaning. For the reader, these terms function as a brief peak into Yunior’s inner struggles, but for Yunior, the fact that Spanish is the language of his vulnerabilities speaks to its significance. Whenever the deepest, most challenging parts of Yunior emerge, they do so in his most essential and foundational nomenclature. Spanish, to put it another way, reaches even the darkest crevasses of Yunior’s heart.

As noted above, Díaz never provides the translations for the Spanish slang he employs. This is because he wants the meaning of these terms to be one step below the surface, just slightly hidden, a way of suggesting Yunior’s discomfort with their meanings. He can’t face his issues with monogamy, referring to himself as a “cuero” and women as “sucias.” He won’t explain to Beto (or to us) where he learned what expectorating means. And he won’t see Beto, once his best friend, now a “pato,” because he can’t face what’s just underneath the surface, the meaning of the words, obscured from the reader ever so slightly by a foreign tongue, but unambiguously clear enough to everyone, even the people who don’t speak the language.


Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic and author of the forthcoming book An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom (Fiction Advocate 2017), a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. He is a staff writer at Literary Hub, and his work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, Tin House, Rolling Stone, New Republic, and numerous others.

Creative Nonfiction: Family, a Queer History

IMAGE BY: TAZ, April 17, 2006
ISSUE 2.1

by Kathleen Gullion

I wish I could say I was the first queer thing to happen to my family, but I’d be lying.

The first queer thing to happen to my family happened in the 1970s, when a gay man and a gay woman fell in love. They tied the knot with a tasteful ceremony in their own backyard. Adopted 2 kids. Probably had a white picket fence. Definitely had a poodle named Sarah.

They were my aunt and uncle.

By day, they were the perfect couple. Probably attended PTO meetings together. Definitely spent hundreds of dollars on professional family photos that hung in the living room.

At night, they’d tuck the kids in, smooch their greasy foreheads, and saunter off to bed, arm in arm. They’d open the door to the bedroom, in which you’d find a king sized bed smack dab in the middle. Egyptian cotton sheets carefully tucked in around the mattress, hospital corners. Goose feather pillows, fluffed. A hand made quilt, folded up at the foot of the bed.

So perfect, you’d almost think they never used it.

That’s because they didn’t.

If you lifted up the sheets, you could see the price tags, right there. But no one ever bothered to look.

My aunt and uncle cross the threshold into their bedroom, and disentangle their arms from around the other’s waist. They give the other a courteous kiss on the cheek, and part ways. My uncle heads left; my aunt heads right.

What you didn’t see when you first walked in were two doors. One to the left, and one to the right.

At the same time, the hands turn the knobs, and the doors open. Before stepping through, my uncle looks over his right shoulder, my aunt over her left. They smile. “Good night.”

They each cross the threshold into a bedroom, which connects to a house in another world, not unlike our own.

Let’s start with my uncle. It’s now morning; he’s waking up. He sits up with a hot cup of black coffee in his hand, watered down with a single ice cube, just the way he likes it. His husband stirs beside him. People confuse them for twins, and my grandmother will still call my uncle’s husband his “friend” even though they got married in Canada years ago.

Their home is covered in expensive art. My uncle makes a lot of money listening to other people’s problems. He hires two women: one to clean the house and another to dust off the art. They come every day at 9:30am sharp.

Of all the privileges my uncle can afford, these are the most special to him: the art and the woman who cleans the art.

He and his husband travel the world. They go to France, Brazil, islands in the Pacific. In Brazil my uncle will meet his second husband, but don’t tell husband #1 that.

I imagine he is a passionate lover, but I don’t imagine it too much, because he is my uncle after all. All I know is he has a deep, velvety voice, and is an excellent dancer, and that’s all I really need to know, because again, he is my uncle after all.

It’s always spring here, my uncle is always in bloom. Sometimes when he closes his eyes, he sees my aunt, but she doesn’t exist in this world. So he pauses for a moment but doesn’t dwell on her. After all, she doesn’t exist here, so what is there to think about?

Sometimes he goes dancing. It doesn’t matter what music is playing, he will dance. Sometimes he goes with his husband, and sometimes he goes with his friends. My uncle seems to know a lot of scientists, and sometimes he goes with them. They dance better than you think they would. His 2nd husband turns out to be a scientist. An environmental kind.

My uncle laughs loudly here. Sometimes my aunt can hear it in her world, and she smiles, because she knows, and she’s laughing too.

If we rewind the tape, we can see my uncle stepping through his door- remember? Let’s pause, and shift the camera to the right. We see my aunt. If you want to imagine, you can imagine me. I’ve been told we look alike.

We can see her stepping through her door. She closes the door behind her, and sighs. But the sigh is really a deep breath in, because it’s morning here, and she’s taking her first breath of the day. She has a cup of coffee in hand, watered down with one ice cube, just the way she likes it.

My aunt and uncle have this in common, and it’s actually why they fell in love.

In sleep, her socks have fallen down around her ankles. She pulls them up back to her knees. Her feet get cold when she sleeps. She needs the socks to keep them warm. She hates the way tight socks feel against her leg hair, pulling the hairs in all directions. But she hates having cold feet more.

Her lover stirs beside her in bed. They share a twin bed, because they’re college students at Smith.

The women of Smith are not allowed to have men in their dorm rooms after hours, 8pm to be exact. At 8pm every night, a woman in tweed knocks on my aunt’s door to make sure she is complying. My aunt always complies.

That morning, my aunt has taken all of her bras and put them in a cardboard box. She’s carefully wrapped them up in tissue paper, and written a note that says, “I won’t be needing these anymore.” She spent an hour perfecting the penmanship. She seals up the box, and addresses it to her mother. She thought about burning them instead, as some of her friends have suggested, but this was more her style.

In class, my aunt listens carefully to the professor and stares hard at her notes, perfecting her penmanship, not because she cares about Robert Frost, but because her lover sits across the room from her, and if my aunt looks up for even a split second, they’ll lock eyes and she will not be able to look away, and that wouldn’t be very good for her studies.

That afternoon, my aunt and her lover sit in a secluded place and share pickles, long dill spears. They lock eyes and now, there is no reason to look away. They have all afternoon, and their studies can wait until later.

I imagine she is a thoughtful lover, but I don’t imagine it much, because she is my aunt after all. All I know is she folds her dirty laundry before she washes it, and when you tell a joke, she laughs, even if the joke wasn’t funny, and that’s all I really need to know, because again, she is my aunt after all.

She calls my grandmother on the phone that evening. My grandmother tells my aunt about the green bean casserole she made for supper and then hangs up. This is the conversation they have every night. My mom is off somewhere, practicing the flute.

It’s always fall here, and my aunt is always surrounded by an autumnal, golden glow. She doesn’t think about my uncle, because she hasn’t met him yet. If she thinks about the future, she thinks about it for a moment, but doesn’t dwell on it. After all, the future is so far from now, so why think about it?

Her eyelids start to grow heavy, and she knows it’s almost time. She kisses her lover on the temple, and carefully steps out of bed. She pauses at the door, looks over her left shoulder, and whispers, “Good night.”

She steps through the door, and sees my uncle doing the same on the other side of the room. It’s morning. They both feel as if they’ve slept eight hours, and they haven’t even had a cup of watered down coffee yet. They smile at each other because they know, and they don’t need to talk about it.

They brew the coffee, they fry the eggs, they toast the bread. The kids come running down the stairs. They all tousle each other’s hair, and lick their lips in anticipation of breakfast.

I wish I could say I was the first queer thing to happen to my family, but I’d be lying.

My eyelids are growing heavy, and I know it’s almost time.

Good night.


Kathleen Gullion is a writer, director, performer, and theatre maker living in Chicago. Her work focuses on themes of  gender and sexuality, and she strives to create interdisciplinary work that transcends genre. She has directed and acted in numerous productions, and her original performance art has been featured around Chicago. She is currently working on adapting this essay into a short play that will be featured in Rhino Fest, a new works festival in Chicago.

A Promise Matters More Than Snow: Rethinking Robert Frost

IMAGE BY: Robert Frost, Newyorker.com

by Jonathan Russell Clark

The great Maxine Kumin wrote a poem describing a time at Bread Loaf when Robert Frost came to read and hang out with the students. “Magisterial in the white wicker rocker,” she writes, “Robert Frost at rest after giving / a savage reading.” He holds “nothing back” and barks at the young poets: “don’t sit / there mumbling in the shadows, call / yourselves poets.” He goes on to give some stern, hard-earned advice:

…Look
up from the page. Pause between poems.
Say something about the next one.
Otherwise the audience

will coast, they can’t take in
half of what you’re giving them.

He concludes by saying, “Make every poem your final poem.”

Kumin’s “The Final Poem” suggests something about Frost’s own poetry that many often overlook. Frost tells Kumin and the other fawning poets of Bread Loaf that the audience “can’t take in / half of what you’re giving them.” If we were to believe conventional analyses of Frost’s work, an audience would be able to get everything in one hearing, as many interpretations of Frost’s poetry don’t account for the layers of Frost’s work. Moreover, Frost is often thought of as a poet of nature and rural life, which to me feels a bit like referring to Anne Sexton as merely a poet of domesticity—these descriptions are ostensible; it is what is underneath them that defines them. Let’s take three of Frost’s nature poems—“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Birches,” and “After Apple-Picking,” which are often interpreted as laments on man’s distance from nature—and determine the way that each of these poems shows how nature only offers fleeting respite and temporary transcendence. Nature cannot save us spiritually; it can only place us “toward heaven,” and only then for but a moment. Rather than lament this ephemerality, Frost concludes, “Earth’s the right place for love.”

Robert Frost was born in San Francisco in March of 1874, and lived there until he was eleven, when the family moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts following the death of Frost’s father. As a poet, Frost has had a fascinating and ever-changing relationship to poetry criticism. As critic Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2003, Frost

at the time of his death in 1963 was generally considered to be a New England folkie… In 1977, the third volume of Lawrance Thompson’s biography suggested that Frost was a much nastier piece of work than anyone had imagined; a few years later, thanks to the reappraisal of critics like William H. Pritchard and Harold Bloom and of younger poets like Joseph Brodsky, he bounced back again, this time as a bleak and unforgiving modernist.

Just last year, David Orr published The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, in which he argues, among other points, that the poem, rather than a celebration of “the road less traveled by” (though thanks to M. Scott Peck people usually leave out the “by”), actually

gives us several variations on the standard dilemmas associated with the romantic sensibility: How can one transcend one’s self (“travel both”) while still remaining oneself (“And be one traveler”)? What is the difference between the stories we tell about ourselves and the actuality of our inner lives? In the moment of choosing—the moment of delay—all answers to these questions remain equally possible. But when a choice is made, other possibilities are foreclosed, which leads to what Frost describes as “crying over what might have been.”

If Frost’s most iconic and ubiquitous poem is largely misunderstood, what chance does the rest of his poetry have? And does the man who refers to regret as “crying over what might have been” mesh with the image we’ve had of Frost since reading his verses in grade school? Critics have long understood that there was more going on in Frost’s work than spotted at first glance, but the greater population has yet to catch up, and it isn’t just “The Road Not Taken” that remains stubbornly misinterpreted.

Another of Frost’s iconic poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is often seen as a mournful ode to humanity’s disconnection from the natural world. The speaker’s “little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near,” because, the poem suggests, the man never does this. By the end, though, the man realizes that he has “promises to keep” and “miles to go before” he sleeps. One interpretation of this would claim that this fleeting moment is somewhat tragic—man has no time for nature. He is too busy, too mired in responsibility to do anything more than stop for a brief respite. This poem, for many, perfectly captures the spirit of Frost’s attitude toward our relationship to nature.

Let us for a moment examine another poem to see if “Stopping by Woods…” truly typifies Frost’s beliefs. In “After Apple-Picking,” the speaker becomes “overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.” His ladder is left “sticking through a tree / Toward heaven.” By the end, the speaker contemplates sleep, how his won’t be “Long sleep,” like the woodchuck’s, not a hibernation, though it feels that way to him. Instead, it will just be “some human sleep.” Is this a man who allows his desire for “human sleep,” his need for daily, human comforts, to get in the way of reaching “toward heaven”? That would make this poem match that of “Stopping by Woods…” Clarke W. Owens notes, “One cannot escape the resonance of death in the image of sleep” in this poem. Similar arguments have been made about the “sleep” at the end of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The death metaphor would suggest further that each poem’s speaker will miss out on the transcendental beauty of nature and die before they truly reach it. Is this what Frost intended?

Back to “After Apple-Picking.” When the man explains why the apple-picking has made him so tired, he says:

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.

The speaker here sees nature as abundant and tedious as life can be. Each apple is not some miracle but merely a drop in the bucket of apple cider. Now, one could read this as yet another critique of humanity’s treatment of nature, i.e., that we reduce beautiful things (like apples) to the level of machinery, the vitality of the wondrous coming from our destruction of them for our own purposes. For the speaker, though, does that matter? However humanity as a whole treats nature, the speaker still has to live in that world, and his reaction to it is less about all people and more about him as an individual. For the speaker, too, is one of “ten thousand thousand” people, “as of no worth.” Nature reminds him of this fact instead of saving him from it.

Okay, so returning to “sleep” as death: if Frost viewed “nature as an antagonist,” or at least as not so different from human life, then what do the references to sleep mean? Are they, as Owens suggests, metaphors for death? Owen’s argument goes like this:

Were the contemplated sleep truly “just some human sleep,” it would be a known quantity—because we have all experienced sleep—but it is not a known quantity. The tension of the poem derives precisely from its not being known. The image of a ladder pointing to heaven (lines 1 and 2), the image of winter, the archetypal season of death (7), the image of long experience and an over-tiredness with one’s formerly desired ends (the middle section of the poem, but especially lines 24–31)—all these things, together with the wondering, apprehensive uncertainty, suggest a nonexclusive or symbolic association of death with the image of sleep.

Owen goes further to state that “the final contrast becomes one between death as it occurs in nature—that is, a cyclical process of decay and cessation followed by birth and renewal akin to the change of seasons—and mere “human sleep,” seen as an individual’s night of dreams interspersed within a quotidian routine of work and reward.” It is tempting to see the poem in this light—that “sleep” stands for death— but this flies in the face of much of the poem’s literalness, an aspect that defies metaphor. Frost, here, does mean to contrast nature with humanity, but elevating “sleep” to death goes a little further than the poem suggests. Strip away any notion of metaphor and we arrive at a poem about the limitations of nature within a human context. The speaker picked apples for a long time and has tired of it. That participating in nature should lift him “toward heaven” means very little to him, as he is tired and overworked. “Just some human sleep” is what he’ll get, not the “long sleep” of hibernation, an extended existence in nature. Because ultimately, the speaker, no matter how heavenly nature can be, must return to life.

But this return is not a negative one. Frost does not see it as tragic. In fact, he sees it as preferable. In “Birches,” we get Frost’s most clear view of man’s relationship with nature—or, at least, his own relationship with nature. After “brilliantly” digressing about an ice storm, and describing the way the speaker imagines a boy “riding down” the branches of the birches, Frost launches into a prolonged statement about nature. “So I was once myself a swinger of birches,” he writes, “And so I dream of going back to be.” But there is something the speaker needs to clarify:

May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Frost’s speakers do not wish to be in nature forever, nor do they think it would be a good thing if they were. Nature offers something like the fun of a boy swinging across tree limbs—a temporary enjoyment, a minor diversion from the more pertinent and necessary claims of an adulthood. One could even see how Frost viewed all “visionary experience as an illusion.” And his speakers are quite aware of this. So the sadness that one detects in a Frost poem, that peculiar yearning just underneath the language, is not a lament for our distance from some life-altering and life-affirming nature, but instead for the fact that nature actually doesn’t offer much solace.

Let’s go back to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” with this interpretation in mind, specifically the final stanza:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The repetition of sleep, rather than suggesting death, actually suggests life–a long, weary and not-so-fulfilling one, yes, but a life nonetheless. This man can’t stay and watch the snow as it softly falls; he can’t continue to contemplate the “lovely, dark and deep” woods. He must carry on, he must keep his promises, and he must sleep, eventually, after all his work is done. Rather than view this as tragic, as a commentary on the way we allow our work and our trivial lives prevent us from experiencing the transcendence of the natural world, why can’t we see this as quietly heroic? Why can’t we allow that maybe the aims of humanity—our goals, ambitions, our greatest hopes and fears—are not meaningless when compared to nature? Why must we be deemed the trivial ones? Can snow really be more meaningful than promises?

If all this sounds a little unromantic, we must remember who we’re dealing with here. Like Kumin, John Updike also has story of seeing Frost in person. After moving through his “poems rather rapidly, minimizing their music in his haste to get on with his spoken commentary on whatever came to his mind,” Frost launched into an attack on Archibald MacLeish. Updike continues:

MacLeish had recently issued a radio play, The Trojan Horse, whose message in that heyday of McCarthyism was that the United States should not take into itself the Trojan horse of totalitarian tactics. Who could dispute so unexceptionable a message and the agitated liberalism that have given rise to it? Well, Frost could. “You know,” he told his old friend and admirer in the astonished hearing of us worshipfully assembled undergraduates, “if you’re going to beat a fella, you got to get to be like him.”

Frost continued on “long enough for his anti-anti-McCarthyite drift to register,” and Updike notes that in response to another work by MacLeish—a version of the Job story called J.B.—and its moral—that “Our labor…is to learn through suffering to love”—Frost said, “People think everything is solved by love. Maybe just as many things are solved by hate.”

Readers conditioned by popular culture’s version of Frost would be stunned by these stories. How heartless and wrongheaded was this guy? Updike’s story is, of course, anecdotal and shouldn’t be used to completely demonize Frost, but there is something important in such a description of Frost, especially when one is considering his poetry. Here was a man who saw nature as “indifferent, alien, hostile,” yet wrote some of the most beloved nature poems of the twentieth century. Here is a man who preferred humanity to nature, yet is remembered for odes, not to people, but to a fleeting escape from human activity. But Frost did not, as Whitman did, contradict himself; his poetry does not contain multitudes. Instead, what Frost feared so has happened: his poetry has been “willfully” misunderstood and placed (irrevocably) in nature, or at least on nature’s side, and the great tragedy might be that now that it’s snatched away, it might never return. Is there hope that the institution of Frost will continue to venerate his poetry for misguided reasons? Can we still rescue him from the woods? In the lines directly before the ones about being misunderstood by fate, Frost writes, “I’d like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over.” Maybe he still can.


Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic and author of the forthcoming book An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom (Fiction Advocate 2017), a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. He is a staff writer at Literary Hub, and his work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, Tin House, Rolling Stone, New Republic, and numerous others.

Poetry: How to Fix a Monet After Someone Punches It

Issue 1.2

by Howie Good

You can see Syria from here,
fish in a dead landscape,
starry nights and astronauts,
the soft edges of time.

What year is it?
Don’t you think it’s time for love?
Everything else has failed.

Fuck it, I’m high.
Let’s walk to the middle of the ocean.

White roses sing and sing.

Assembled from titles of artworks by Alma Thomas, Hema Upadyay, Mark Bradford, and Kung Me.


Howie Good co-edits White Knuckle Press with Dale Wisely. His most recent collection of poetry is A Ghost Sings, A Door Opens (2016) from Another New Calligraphy.