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BOOK REVIEW / POETRY

Exploring Robert Frost's Last Great Poem

READING THE MOUNTAINS OF HOME by John Elder; Harvard University Press $22.95, 254 pages

April 10, 1998|THOMAS CURWEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1946, Robert Frost was a forgotten poet. His earlier verse had been anthologized, his recent work criticized and the accolades that made him America's most popular poet were 10 years in coming. Dividing his time between Dartmouth and Boston, a vacation home in Florida and a farm in Ripton, Vt., the 72-year-old writer courted solitude and lived close to his own misfortune: the deaths of his wife, daughter and son.

He also published "Steeple Brush," an uneven, unremarkable collection but for one 62-line poem, "Directive." This subtle, difficult paean to time and change anchored in the Frostian particularities of New England has been compared by some critics to "The Waste Land."

Fifty years later, John Elder turned to Frost's last great poem and has written a beautiful study of its complicated narrative. "We read complex, and even baffling, poetry," he reminds us, "in order to discover the meaning that constantly pulls us off the trail with the chords and bursts and tangles of its richness. . . . Literature and the land redeem the broken present from the clarity of expectations."

More than literary criticism, "Reading the Mountains of Home" is an extended homage, a memoir and meditation. Elder succeeds in the most difficult of ways: As his focus expands, his concentration grows more acute. Framing each chapter with lines from the poem, he brooks no time for the critical vogue. His analysis is attuned to both the language of the poem and to its concentric rings, the stories that illuminate this landscape and prove the vitality and relevance of poetry.

"We enter a poem and vanish into the wilderness," he declares. "Poetry, like faith, depends upon the substance of things hoped for and illuminates the evidence of things not seen."

Elder, who lives in Bristol, Vt., and teaches at Middlebury College, would have been Frost's neighbor--Bristol being just up the road from Ripton, and the mountains, fields and streams that Frost wandered with his border collie are Elder's, the stone walls still standing and century-old cellar holes still empty. The forests there are twice removed from the original woods, twice cleared and regrown in the aftermath of abandoned hopes. As Frost opens "Directive":

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.

Hiking this poem, reading this "recovered" wilderness, Elder discovers that "the record of human activity can enrich nature's meanings," a belief that mirrors Frost's. But Elder, who grew up in Northern California, brings a Westerner's sensibility to this region and soon learns that the hardwood forests, the glacier-carved ledges and wildflowers that form the Green Mountains are ingrained in the state's civic psyche deeper than the Sierra crags and sequoias of Muir's state.

The further he enters this poem, accompanied by the works of Wordsworth, Aldo Leopold and Gary Snyder, and of local geologists, foresters and field ecologists, the more he finds himself uncovering and creating his own invisible connections to place. As Frost writes halfway through "Directive":

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.

Elder extends a similar invitation through the intimate details of his own life. He scatters a portion of his deceased father's ashes from Mt. Abraham. He walks the forests of Deer Leap with his daughter. He builds a canoe and tests it with his son. He goes on an impromptu camp-out with his wife.

No apologist for the past, he avoids nostalgia and the dreamy romanticism that muddies the prose and vision of many nature writers. As he crafts a picture of life in rural America, he gives himself up to the "larger current of energies that swirl through this place," energies clearly toughened by time. "Drink and be whole again beyond confusion," concludes Frost, an exhortation that by the end of "Reading" is hard won but all the more promising.

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