Here, let me take your things. How cold your hands are;
the rest of you, I daresay, must be frozen.
I’ve built a fire to last as long as we last,
and I forewarn you there is talk in me
to last the afternoon and into evening.
Poppa’s room has a fine view of the lake.
It’s to the front, at the head of the stairs,
while mine is to the rear, facing the marshes.
Perhaps I failed to show it to you last time.
We can go up to see it if you like,
but I’ve put on a pot of tea to brew.
I thought we’d warm to that on such a cold day.
We can see the house later, and the view:
“all the way to Canada and beyond,”
the boy who cuts the trees for Poppa calls it.
How good of you to come, and in such weather.
Winter can be quite harsh here, but I must say
I mind the weather much less than I once did,
oh, not nearly as much, and I am thankful.
Nothing, when I was younger, kept me warm,
not the coat with the mouton sleeves and collar,
not the long scarf, not sweater worn on sweater,
not even, nights, the goosedown cover, nothing.
Poppa says the cold is our element.
Attitude, he says, is what keeps us warm
(or fails, he might have said, to keep us warm).
It may be I no longer dwell on it,
the cold, that is. It seems part of the days here,
part of the life we live here at the lake.
(Of course, this is no ordinary lake;
the boy who cuts the trees calls it a sea,
which I suppose is apt. Look at the map:
does Lake Ontario look like a lake,
or does it seem forces have worked their way,
glacier, or salt, perhaps a form of anguish,
so far inland it seems we come to cling
to the edge of something quite oceanic?).
Now I offer it no resistance, none,
and no longer do I do battle with it.
It could be said I hope for less, as well.
The boy who cuts the trees says hope may be
one’s resistance to the inevitable.
I think that says it fittingly, don’t you?
The day that Mr. Lincoln died, I thought
nothing in our lives would be quite the same,
nothing could be restored to what it was.
But the peaches were as immense that summer
as the previous summer; pears and apples
ripened the week they ripen every autumn,
and the lake froze the eighteenth of November
as it has each year since I was a child.
Letters from Owen still come once each month,
just as they did before, giving the news,
the very same news, ship, ship’s crew, the weather.
And Owen is still wed to the Charles Cooper,
the envelopes are still marked Mexico,
the Falklands, San Francisco, Patagonia.
Mr. Lincoln’s death did not change that, either,
and, I daresay, I expect nothing will.
On the coldest days, how can I explain it,
when I set out early for Watertown,
follow the path that cuts through tall grass (I can
take you there later, too, after our tea),
the lake frozen as far as you can see,
even perhaps beyond where you can see,
a gale whipping up from the shore, the wind
hammering from all sides, thirty-foot waves
slamming across the rocks, the jetties shattered,
I feel warmed by that chaos, safe, protected,
as Poppa would say: in my element.
At the center of where I walk, or stand,
the wind drops, and the waves, almost in mid-air,
seem suspended an instant; where the grass
flattens on either side, making a path,
there was no path before, merely wild grass.
It will become quite still, yet I can hear,
as though it lay at some great distance from me,
the fury I have come through and must go through
if I am to make it to Watertown
and back by the time darkness will have fallen.
This is a lithograph of Owen’s ship,
all one hundred and sixty-five feet of it.
If you squint, you can just make out the name
painted on the prow, see here?, the Charles Cooper.
The letters are retouched after each voyage
(salt, wind, and light eat clear through the hull’s wood),
twenty-two carat gold leaf, Owen tells me,
though when he wrote that, I wrote in response
it could be merely sixteen carat, tarnished,
and halfway to corrosion, for my part.
Can you imagine men calling it home,
or, what is worse, wanting to call it home?
Oh, it’s a handsome vessel, I agree,
riding high in the water, sails unfurled,
the decks teak, the bronze fittings highly polished,
but you must know my thoughts about the sea,
about a man choosing to live his life,
at least the better part of it, at sea.
Owen knows, too, but I can’t say it matters
to the slightest degree what I may think.
And so once more this year, as I did last,
on that cold, clear, blue morning in mid-April,
when I wake to the sound of lake-ice breaking
and, later, eyes closed, make a wish on candles
Poppa has arranged on the walnut cake
he will ask Mrs. Foster to bake for me,
thirty-one candles this year, thirty-one,
I will look for a letter from Cape Horn
in Owen’s hand (the ship draws coal this time;
this run is the longest run of them all,
from Philadelphia to San Francisco,
as well as the most treacherous, I might add,
rounding the tip of South America),
in which he sends his birthday greetings to me,
then, in a postscript which it takes from one
April to another for me to phrase
properly, with the right inflection, though
the meaning, year to year, remains the same,
says the present voyage will be his last
or, should he have signed on for one more crossing,
next to last, “Trusting this may please you, Owen.”
I know it will not likely happen that way,
but I need, each spring, to invent those words,
invent the circumstance, invent a change
in Owen, in my life, invent my life.
(The boy who cuts the trees claims my inventions
approach a richness quite beyond what Owen
gives, has given, or is able to give me.)
Poppa says I must wait, no matter how long.
Poppa has not the slightest difficulty
advising me what to do with the years.
Once a pledge has been made, nothing can break it,
and Poppa thinks we have an understanding,
Owen and 1.1 may have thought so once
myself, but I fear I no longer think that.
While I may not know what it is he wants,
I know quite well what Owen does not want.
Poppa, of course, knows that it is to wait
perhaps as well as anyone can know it:
Poppa turns eighty-six this year, and his side,
the men, that is, on his side, live to ninety
(but for his father, who did not reach thirty).
I know what Poppa waits for now, forgive me,
and I know, too, how, when he speaks of Owen,
he can tell me I must wait, never thinking
to ask whether I am able to wait,
or wait longer, if I choose to wait,
have the stomach for waiting, never thinking
to ask what it is I might feel each April,
having survived another winter, having
arrived at spring with a life quite as empty,
as purposeless, as the previous spring;
like a sixteen-year-old, blowing out candles
on a cake Poppa paid someone to bake
(imagine, paid, which shows how far we’ve come,
or not come, we who have only each other,
little, pitifully little, as that is),
wishing, with eyes closed, what I wished last year,
and wished the year before, that Owen cared;
wishing, as though I thought wishing might do
what, year to year, the waiting has not done.
Poppa tells me I must think of the future.
(Poor Mr. Lincoln: thinking of the future
never quite swayed the bullet from its course
nor kept the drama at Ford’s from unfolding).
When he is gone, he says, there will be nothing
in my life but a vacant house to care for,
a view of Lake Ontario to one side
and a view of the marshes to the other.
What he means, I suspect, is that I will have
no one to cook for, no one to bring meals to.
When Poppa says “care for” I think he means
serve, or keep house for. Other definitions
of caring, caring for, may be lost on him,
though, of course, I attach no blame: his childhood
was a difficult one, brought to an end
when his father died and he, as the eldest,
left school to save this house and work these orchards.
Poppa’s future was always land and labor.
The boy who cuts the trees speaks of the future
as though it were an avenue extending
from the present, majestic, broad, tree-lined,
carriages passing under the high arches
formed by lindens and sycamores, above us,
light through the leaves striking the horse’s flanks,
so that we see how beautiful its coat is,
catching in the ribs of the wheel-spokes, dappling
the faces of the fares who board the coach
at some point down the line, young couples, mostly,
arms linked, holding hands, traveling together
(where will not matter, since they go together).
But he is young, twenty-one next September:
he can make what he chooses of his life;
the future seems both limitless and splendid.
He speaks of settling in the Minnesota
Territories, the earth there black and fertile,
or pushing all the way to California
where, on the slopes of valleys, he has heard,
rises always struck by the sun, grow grapes
as fine, they claim, as any from Bordeaux.
He need not wait for letters from Cape Horn
which, when they come, will speak of everything,
the ship, the crew, the weather, save ourselves.
He need not listen daily to the tune
Poppa perfects and croons: the future, wait,
time made abstract by Poppa, not here, now.
He need not climb the stairs at night and hear
the small sounds his breath makes in a small bed
in a cold room with a view of the marshes,
sounds the size of the life one is reduced to
in this house, winter, 1866,
on the shore of this lake, in New York State,
Canada on one side, sky on the other,
ice for the portion that may lie between.
Owen describes the wrecks of those square-riggers
caught in the coves and inlets of the Falklands,
abandoned by their crews because of straits
much too treacherous to negotiate
(the tide too early, or too late, the day
too bright, if it was day, the night too dark);
the winds have scrambled vessels on the rocks,
the surf smashes the mainsails, the gales lash
the jibs, the beams, or what is left of them,
and the sun bleaches all that lies beneath it:
teak decks crumble to powder, sails to dust.
A smell half rot, half rust, hangs in the air.
The crews call it the graveyard, and the ships
making the long run past the Horn the ghost fleet.
Owen states no one aboard can foretell
when the Charles Cooper may ground on those shoals,
when the planking beneath them may give way
and the South Atlantic undo them all,
though, in fact, I think he might welcome that.
Owen, I can tell you, likes to be tested,
prefers, it seems, unlikely situations
in which he can be brought to confront danger,
and, ideally, in as God-forsaken
a locale as possible, like the Falklands.
Imagine, winds so fierce, and latitudes
so extreme, nothing grows there, nothing can grow,
an archipelago quite wholly treeless.
Life at the lake is much too peaceful for him.
If there is anything Owen feels love for,
it may be risk, the idea of risk.
The boy who cuts the trees (oh, how unhappy
he would be could he hear me call him that)
says that the single risk worth the name risk
is the thing that passes between two people,
both the thing given and the need to give it,
that the risks Owen takes, at sea, those risks
Owen, through the years, occupies himself with
are the risks of a man with little taste
or talent for a life with others, risks
sought by men who find, in time, there is nothing
they can love, find they are not able to love,
who care too little or care not at all.
For a boy who, I daresay, has not ventured
farther than ten or twelve miles from this lakefront,
I do not know how, at twenty-one years,
he can have learned so much, or felt so keenly.
And yet Owen is a man who has traveled
thousands of miles from home, many times that,
but the weight and substance of what he knows
(I do not mean practical knowledge: rainfall
in remote regions, weather, stars, the tides),
what the man understands, is, indeed, meager.
Forgive me, chattering away so, putting
an undue burden on you, I expect,
with my ramblings, all the while quite forgetting
the cup of tea I promised when you came.
Please do excuse such thoughtlessness. Your visit,
and in such weather, mind you, is a tonic;
it seems I hardly know where to begin
before the hour has passed and you must leave.
And visitors are so infrequent now,
at least until late April, words must keep
until the weather breaks, and when it breaks
my silence of these months seems to break with it.
How grateful I am you could come today.
Perhaps in spring I can return your visit,
but with Poppa to care for, with the trees
to nurse through winter, and this house to manage,
time, I confess, seems to slip away from me
(and, to be.candid with you, my life with it).
There, I have put the pot to brew again.
It will be merely minutes, you must stay.
I know you wish to start before the dark falls,
but I can have the boy who cuts the trees
walk back with you as far as the coach station.
The stage is always late on days like these.
Oh, it will be no trouble, I assure you;
he is more than pleased to do what I ask.
Yes, what a fine idea; it will give you
opportunity to become acquainted.
You can weigh for yourself if what I say
is so, or ascribe it to the mere prattling
of an old maid touched by a boy’s attention.
Owen will ask about him in his letters.
I do suppose I write of him a great deal;
still, Owen quite forgets that, but for Poppa,
I have no one to speak with until spring
(when Mr. Lincoln died, whom could I grieve with?),
and, of course, the conversations with Poppa
are lectures on my need to wait for Owen.
Poppa grants he is bright, and a hard worker,
highly ambitious, too, but Poppa tells me
I pay him too much mind, I make him think
he and I are equals, or one day might be.
He is a man who works for you, says Poppa.
I have told Poppa Owen shows less kindness
than the boy does, that his feelings run deeper
than Owen’s do (feelings for life, that is;
what he might feel for me I dare not guess).
Owen will be a husband, Poppa says,
which, I must say, is knowledge I am lacking.
It would flatter me if Owen proved jealous,
but I quite doubt my words elicit that.
When I write Owen something the boy says,
Owen will answer, “When is the elopement?”
When I wrote the boy wishes to head west,
into the Minnesota Territories,
Owen answered, “Write me your new address.”
And when I wrote the boy said word had come back
of earth there black and fertile, Owen wrote,
“Will there be soap enough in Minnesota
to scrub such fine, rich dirt from your four hands?”
Poppa says I must tell the boy that Owen
is to marry me after his last voyage.
“Has he told you when that may be?,” I ask.
Tell him now, Poppa says, speak of plans made.
“Plans are precisely what I have not made,
what Owen,” I tell Poppa, “will not make.”
Poppa says, “You must wait, no matter how long.”
“What have I left in me to wait with, Poppa?,”
I ask; “what, in fact, is there left to wait for?”
“Think of the future,” Poppa says. “What future
does a twenty year-old boy, a tree-cutter,
offer a woman nearly thirty-one,
a woman who has land with fruit trees on it
the envy of the county and the state?”
“What future does a sailor offer, Poppa,
a man who wants only to be at sea,
who,” I say, “when he writes, writes nothing, nothing,
of the two of us, only of the sea,
who, in letters, uses the name Charles Cooper
repeatedly, and with an intimacy
wholly wanting when he addresses me?”
“Poppa, this is who Owen is,” I say;
“who Owen is, Poppa, Owen will be.”
“When he comes home, when the sea is behind him,
when you marry,” Poppa says, “that will change.”
“But it is not possible to wait longer,”
I say, “not possible Owen will change.”
“That, too, is why you must wait,” Poppa tells me,
“because the future will not stand in place
long enough, daughter, for you to predict it.
Nor can you predict what, tomorrow, Owen
will be like; that alone should give you hope.”
“The boy who cuts the trees,” I say, “claims hope is
one’s resistance to the inevitable.”
Poppa pauses, then slowly, quite distinctly,
pronounces each word, as though with much effort:
“The boy who cuts the trees is not the future.”
As exhausted as Poppa now, perhaps,
not unkindly, yet not severely, I say,
“Damn the future, it is today I want.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 1, on page 41
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