Joyce Carol Oates: “Lovely, Dark, Deep” from Harper’s, November 2013

Harper's Art by Steven Dana

Harper’s Art by Steven Dana

Here was the first surprise: the great man was much heavier, his body much more solid, then I’d anticipated. You would not have called him fat, but his torso sagged against his shirt like a great udder, and his thighs in summer trousers were fleshy, like those of the middle-aged woman. The sensitive-young-poet face of the photos (at least, the photos I’d affixed to my bedroom wall) had coarsened and thickened; deep lines now bracketed the eyes, as if the seventy-seven-year-old poet had too often scowled or squinted. The snowy-quite hair so often captured in photographs, like ectoplasm lifting from the poet’s head, was thinner than any photograph had suggested, and not so snowy white, in fact disheveled, as if the poet had only just risen, dazed, from sleep. The entire face was large – larger than you expect a poet’s face to be – and the thick jaws were covered in glittering little hairs, as if the poet hadn’t shaved for a day or two. The eyelids were drooping, nearly shut.
“Excuse me – Mr. Frost?”

I was minding my own business when a retweet rolled down my feed: “Joyce Carol Oates skewers Robert Frost”, with a link to a juicy WaPo teaser about “Lovely, Dark, Deep” in the November issue of Harper’s. Mention was also made of a July article (which I haven’t finished yet) dissing modern poetry in general. Having been sensitized to all things modern-poetic, including Frost, by my currently running ModPo class where we considered “Mending Wall” just a couple of weeks ago, I left a comment on the class message board, and ended up in possession of the article (thanks, Tracy!) without having to run over to the library.

I often call stories “interesting,” meaning that as the most sincere praise. Well, this one is really interesting, on a couple of levels. It starts out as your typical Young Wannabe Disillusioned by Great Icon story, but it moves beyond that pretty quickly. I’ve had my struggles with JCO for decades, but nearly every time I’ve encountered a story of hers over the past few years, I’ve been smitten. Maybe she’s becoming a better writer. Or maybe, just maybe, could it be I’m becoming a better reader?

First-person narrator Evangeline Fife is a grad student assigned to interview Robert Frost at the 1951 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference for an obscure poetry magazine. She comes on him asleep on his porch, and notes how he doesn’t match his public image. When he comes to, he morphs into a bit of a cad, making mild sexual innuendos which, for the 50s, would’ve been not only highly embarrassing but difficult to deflect, as it was still assumed that men sexualizing women was both a basic human right and a compliment. Evangeline recognizes Frost as “the sort of bully, very familiar to girls and women, who is fond of his victim even as he is contemptuous of her, whose fondness for her may be an expression of his contempt…”

So she lets him have it. Right between the eyes, except, you know, lower. The escalation is gradual, the barbs on both sides well-placed; I actually felt my heart racing as I read, unusual considering there was no action other than conversation. Then again, to call this “conversation” would be to call a tsunami an inconvenience.

“Mr. Frost. Do you remember when your daughter Lesley was six years old? When you were still a young man—a young father—living on that wretched farm in Derry, New Hampshire? You woke your daughter with a loaded pistol in your hand and you forced the terrified child to come downstairs in her nightgown, and barefoot, to the kitchen, where the child saw her mother seated at the table, her hair in her face, weeping. Your wife had been an attractive woman once, but living with you in that desolate farmhouse, enduring your moods, your rages, your sloth, your fumbling incapacity as a farmer, your sexual bullying and clumsiness, already at the age of thirty-one she’d become a broken, defeated woman. You told the child Lesley that she must choose between her mother and her father—which of you was to live and which to die. ‘By morning, only one of us will be alive.’”
“No. That did not—happen. . . It did not.”
“Yet Lesley remembers it vividly and will reproach you with the memory throughout your life, Mr. Frost. Is she mistaken?”

I don’t know much – anything, really – about Robert Frost’s personal life. I don’t know that much of his poetry, either; beyond the standards, all that’s familiar is “Choose Something Like a Star” (my high school chorus sang a wonderful Randall Thompson setting of this from his Frostiana suite, and, not that I’m an apologist at all, but I’ve always associated “when in time the crowd is swayed to carry praise or blame too far” with Richard Nixon, somehow). Oates’ note at the end of the piece reads: “This is a work of fiction, though based on (limited, selected) historical research. See Robert Frost: A Biography, by Jeffrey Meyers (1996).”

As Evangeline looks behind the Image, so does the reader. The darkness is there; it’s always been there (even as a twelve-year-old, I found “Stopping By Woods” to reek of suicide, but then, I was a pretty depressed twelve-year-old and had learned early not to say things like that lest I scare the adults) but Americana doesn’t want to see darkness any more than they want to see a depressed twelve-year-old, they want to see the “Yankee sage who was also a Yankee wit—a ‘homespun’ American who was also a seer,” as Evangeline puts it. She accuses Frost of playing into that, performing only his more familiar, more mass-marketable if you will, poems in public readings. That may be true, but he’s reputed to have said of “The Road Not Taken,” “You have to be careful of that one; it’s a trick poem – very tricky.” Nobody cared that he intended the irony of looking back on a choice and making it out to be more than it was; America wanted the Hallmark Card reading. Can’t blame Frost for that, really; once you release a work of art into the world, you lose ownership, and it becomes what it becomes. But Evangeline blames him anyway.

When the narrative voice changes, you know something interesting is going on. I’m a big fan of Oates’ earlier story “You” which I encountered during Zin’s Second Person Study (wow, I edited nearly all the Zin out of that post, didn’t I… sorry, Zin, come back, you can use all the short sentences and exclamation points you want), where she moved from reflector to homocommunicative (in the words of Monica Fludernik) second person. Here, the shift from first person to third person is nearly obscured by long passages of untagged dialogue. In fact, I initially thought the shift occurred later than it did, though that’s probably careless reading on my part.

Right after this narrative shift, Frost recalls another published comment he’s made: “… To be too subjective with what an artist has managed to make objective is to come upon him presumptuously and render ungraceful what he in the pain of his life had faith he’d made… graceful.” What a great melding of real life and story and craft – and what a great place to put it! (that one’s for you, Zin.) Who here is the subject, and who the object? And isn’t what happened in the first paragraph, exactly this quote: Evangeline coming upon the artist presumptuously and rendering him ungraceful with her Kodak Hawkeye snapshot?

Here’s where the ModPo discussion on “Mending Wall” comes in. My (slightly edited; it was originally a full page, after all) notes from that class discussion:

There’s a danger in the erosion of the boundary. … Frost disliked free verse because it was like playing tennis without a net. Rules are beautiful; distinctions between I and other are the reason we have culture. The danger of merging subjectivities is horrifying…. If you take the net down, it’s not tennis any more, unrecognizable.…He knows the tradition and still wants to use it.
Clear distinction between subject and object. Object is the guy on the other side of the wall, lives in darkness. Who could the other be? It’s been argued that it’s an alter ego, Frost meeting himself…
He (the speaker) doesn’t know what makes the wall come down over the year – “something there is.” It’s nature, it likes things to go horizontal. He’s in favor of the artifice, the culture, that allows us to maintain the wall. It is “frost” – winter frost – that brings the wall down, expanding and contracting, the winter frost, the poet Frost; his speaker wants the wall up, to have a relationship w/neighbor who’s unselfconscious, but the poet brings the wall down, so we can put it back up. Frost is fighting with the author of this somewhat anti-modernist view of subject-object relations.

— ModPo discussion, led by Prof. Al Filreis, UPenn

This narrative shift in the story – the tearing down of the wall between Evangeline and Frost, the melding of subject and object – and its placement at this point in the story, gave me goosebumps, because, if I’m correctly absorbing what ModPo has put out there (and that’s a big “if”): this story is “Mending Wall,” showing the wall in place, and come down, and yes, it is horrifying. Perhaps to be a bit more Freudian about it: the boundary between ego and superego has been collapsed, and the guilt is just tearing through pale, tender skin like acid.

It was Evangeline who first noticed his “udder” in the beginning, and Frost himself who sees himself that way at the end, that image of udder – source of nutrition and succor but also an animal thing, a coarse, ugly thing – bridging the transitions. His poetry notebook, held first like a shield, then clutched for desperately like a lifeline, provides another continuous image.

His notebook! Precious notebook! It had slipped from his fingers. He strained to reach it, to hold it against his chest. Strangely it seemed that he was suddenly bare-chested, the shame of his soft, slack torso, the udderlike breasts, exposed to all the world. He could not call for help; the shame was too deep. The poet was not a weakling to call for help. The obstinacy of his aging flesh had been a source of great frustration to him and shame, but he had not succumbed to it, and he would not.

I’m always interested in the names writers choose, and here we’ve got the name “Evangeline Fife.” I’m not sure if a fife is immediately symbolic of something, but I get a somewhat military image, as in fife and drums; this story is certainly about a battle. As for “Evangeline,” I immediately wondered if this was a reference to the Longfellow poem (Frost made several references to Longfellow in his works) in which Evangeline followed a loyal and persistent path over the course of decades after expulsion from Acadia only to be reunited with her beloved Gabriel moments before their death (I live a block away from Longfellow’s birthplace, and sang parts of a vaudeville send-up of Evangeline a few years ago with the Longfellow Chorus, so it’s rather inevitable I’d go there). Yet I don’t see a clear connection to this story, other than the faithful pursuit and eventual reunion. Just as a name, “Evangeline” is from “evangel” or “bearer of good tidings,” but this evangel brings Frost face to face with that which he would prefer to avoid. Irony? Or something different altogether? I don’t know. There’s also the fictitious literary journal Poetry Parnassus which makes perfect sense as both a journal and as a metaphor for Frost’s Bread Loaf cabin; if there’s some more urgent echo, I’m afraid it’s lost on me.

You might hear a lot about this story. You might hear, for instance, that it’s “a wicked takedown of the kindly grandfather of 20th-century American verse: Robert Frost.” Or, that Oates “skewers Robert Frost as a sexist, racist old bore.” That’s pretty accurate, if sensationalist. Or you might hear “It’s about a woman who interviews Robert Frost” which is less sensational but inaccurate. Whatever it is, it’s a terrific story as a story.

Is it accurate, or fair to Robert Frost? No idea; not my department. I will say this: having read it, I very much want to know more about Frost, and to read more of his poetry. How can that be a bad thing?

4 responses to “Joyce Carol Oates: “Lovely, Dark, Deep” from Harper’s, November 2013

  1. Pingback: Joyce Carol Oates: “EDickinsonRepliluxe” from Virginia Quarterly Review | A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Joyce Carol Oates–”Lovely, Dark, Deep” (Harper’s, November 2013) | I Just Read About That...

  3. Pingback: Joyce Carol Oates–“Lovely, Dark, Deep” (Harper’s, November 2013) | I Just Read About That...

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