The other evening as the sun was sloping toward its western bower, I sat on the porch of the Surf Bar enjoying the sway of shadows dancing on the tin roof of the dilapidated building across from me. My eyes slowly panned down to the building’s façade, and the dull, cracked, and rotting planks suddenly struck me as magical. Even the window-unit air-conditioner seemed to me beautiful in the golden light of the afternoon.
A sad thought intruded: I have squandered the vast majority of my life pent in the small room of my consciousness with the venetian blinds slatted shut. In other words, I have stumbled here and there for the last sixty-six years, lost in self-absorption, rarely noticing anything of interest when actually everything should be of interest.
So I went home and reread Robert Frost’s great poem “Directive,” which begins with the brilliant line, “Back out of all this now too much for us,” which echoes the first line of Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The world is too much with us,” an arena of responsibility and labor where “we lay waste our powers” in the realm of “getting and spending.”
In “Directive” Frost tries to lead us out of that blind little room of our consciousness with its spreadsheets and closed venetian blinds into “a house that is no longer a house/Upon a farm that is no longer a farm/And in a town that is no more a town,” in other words, into a landscape of ruin where folks once lived, a ghost town of sorts.
In soothing tones, the old poet becomes our guru. He, paradoxically, “only has at heart [our] getting lost” — “lost enough to find [ourselves]” — guiding us through a grove of trees whose “excitement [. . .] sends light rustle rushes to their leaves.” At our final destination, we receive “a broken drinking goblet like the ‘Grail’” our guide has retrieved from “the instep arch/Of an old cedar at the waterside,” a child’s toy he had stolen from a playhouse and hidden in that tree.
He ends the poem with these lines:
“Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”
Here’s the complete poem:
Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry—
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretence of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You- must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods’ excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
You see is no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.