Letter to a Poet
The Frost Place
August 12, 2010
If you are anything like some poets, you probably won’t like it here much. I don’t know why. If you don’t like it here, you wouldn’t like the rooftop apartment in the old part of Paris, just off of Avenue Carnot, or the creaky wooden floors of the Grande Galerie in the Louvre, from which you can peek in on a grinning Mona Lisa.
In fact, a taste of France is not far off. Quebec is just to the north, and even as you enter the Granite State, you are greeted with a hearty Bienvenu, right below the motto Live Free Or Die. Of course, there is a laundry to do your clothes and a store to get coffee beans, fresh bread, eggs, honey, yoghurt, and, like at the open market on the Boulevard Raspail, fresh vegetables and meats.
I wouldn’t go so far to say the Frost Place is as good as all old things are, like wine, cheese, and the Mona Lisa. I would say it’s as old as a lot of good things are. There are a number of insects to squash. It’s been a bad year for earwigs, which gardeners say you can attract and drown with saucers of beer. I recommend a rolled up literary magazine brought firmly down on the offending bug, as you might need the beer later for drowning yourself.
Otherwise, pest wise, I’ve heard tales of mice taking up residence in the stovetop in past years, sneaking cherries from a bowl and pulling them down through a burner, but for the most part, the mice confine themselves to the walls. And what house doesn’t have mice, which brings me to the topic of the poetry I have been writing here: the area in and around Tokyo, my Paris for the past 12 years:
It’s getting late. And from the fifth
floor office, I watch rats squirrel
under empty buses and idling taxis
where the drivers smoke and talk
in slippers. And I feel like a rat,
like this will have to do for a life,
a nightlife, an afterlife because
rats, man, have no heaven.
Rodents, along with men, live and die in the most sophisticated and unsophisticated of places. The difference is the Frost Place offers bears. One lone yearling came to the kitchen screen door and welcomed me my first full day here. That was thoughtful; though, seeing a bear can be as shocking as seeing a stranger without pants, if you’re not used to seeing strangers without pants:
A woman stands outside in pink pajama top
but no bottom, and from far away her fur
is as thick as a black bear’s. I want to see
her face, but as I near, I can’t make out
what’s there. I turn. The best way to save us
all from shame is pretend she’s not here.
The difference then is really a matter of scenery. Here, there is a view of the White Mountains, which change color and form depending on weather and time of day. They’re a frosty gray silhouette now at noon, but by the time I finish this, they’ll be glowing pink with the setting sun. If you’re not a fan of mountains, don’t look at them. And definitely don’t sweat them for hours to reach waterfalls and mountain lakes or stony outcrops from which to survey the valley below.
If you don’t like solitude, don’t be a writer. But even if you like solitude, you should like people because they’re people and you need something to write about. Plenty of people stop to see the museum in the house, shop in the barn, or walk the newly restored poetry trail. They’ll be sure to sit on your front porch describing the mountains in adjectives even you wouldn’t use: beautiful, stunning, marvelous, gorgeous, majestic, something else. And they’ll say how inspiring it must be to write here.
Then, a woman will read the sign out front, making a general announcement to all within earshot: “1 to 5 p.m. (except Tuesdays). At other times, if you walk the grounds, please respect the concentration of the resident poet living and working in this house.”
And a man will answer: “There’s a what?”
Woman: “A poet.”
Man: “A poet?”
Woman: (Raising the volume of her voice) “It says here, ‘please respect the concentration of the resident poet living and working in this house.’”
Man: (Looking in the window where you sit typing) “I don’t see anyone.”
Woman: “Well, it says right here.”
And you’ll hear this conversation many times and not be noticed by many people. If you’re lucky, someone will walk in and see you in your underwear, unless you’re like me, and you keep all the doors locked and your pants on.
Life goes on day after day like this while you write gorgeous, marvelous poems that are something else. And you begin to feel lonely. If you’re lucky, like me, the days will be broken by a visit from a friend, but even if you’re not, there are the interns and staff running the place, visits by neighbors, meal invitations, poetry seminars, and readings, when you can strut your stuff, eat and drink with others, and learn why Frost and this place is important to them. Then again, this only makes you miss France more, or in my case, Japan, where my daughter, son, and wife are staying for the summer. And even though you’re in such a majestic, beautiful place that’s something else, you feel like you’re nowhere, and you wish you were back on that mountain in another country with the ones you love:
This is a mountain lake. There is
my wife, my son, my daughter, and me.
I was here once before, but I didn’t
have anyone with me. I wasn’t born,
but now I am taking breaths, not just
in any view of any mountain lake. I am
nowhere with someone breath-taking, too.
What’s there to do but get back to work? Read that Dostoevsky novella you borrowed from the Abbie B. Greenleaf Library with the line “Nature is not a tender mother, but a step-mother to the monster.” Pull off the living room shelf Donald Hall’s description of Frost in Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, “The ground outside sank away, and Frost, approaching the lecture hall uphill, appeared to be rising out of the ground.” Or pick up the Summer 1977 copy of The Iowa Review, the inaugural year of the Frost Place residency, with a speech titled “A Writer’s Destiny” given in Iowa by Jorge Luis Borges the year before:
Writing...is a fulltime job, because every experience should be of some value to you. You find in the long run that your misfortunes should be made into your tools, since happiness is an end unto itself and does not need to be written about. In fact, I do not think there has been a single poet of happiness.... If a man is happy in the present, then that happiness has no need of being written down. Happiness has to be transmuted into something else, into art—so that all experiences are grist to the mill of the writer.
So you return to your computer and start writing again under Frost’s eyes watching from the enlarged photo on the fireplace:
My daughter came into life feathered
like the bird skin jacket of an Ainu woman
until washed and placed into a bin
next to other babies on display
like a row of clean craniums lined from
mouse to hare to fox to wolf to a bear
once chained and baited by men.
And you get up, go for a run or swim, take a shower, eat your dinner, check your email or chat online, and then study another language, French, Japanese, or any other language that Frost’s poems have been translated into, and then go to bed, so you can get up early enough and do it all over again, so when your time is up, you don’t have to regret saying goodbye.
Before I came here, I read in one of the many biographies about Frost that he didn’t care much for Paris. I don’t know why. If you don’t like Paris, how could you like an old farmhouse in summer in New Hampshire kept cool only by breezes and the wet basement beneath the creaky floors? How could you like an old barn, now hung with photos of past residents? How could you like any place of art or artifact? Mona Lisa would be as happy hanging here as anywhere.
Now, it’s time for me to thank everyone who made this possible, and say au revoir, sayonara, and goodbye.
2010 Resident Poet