Spring Pools at 4 a.m.

I can’t sleep, and I’ve tried all the usual solutions: warm milk, melatonin, hot bath with Aura Cacia Tranquil Chamomile (Roman Chamomile, Lavender, Patchouli). So I decided to stop fighting the insomnia and consider the possibility that something wants to be written and it’s that something that is keeping me awake. When I did a little asking around, the answer came back that Robert Frost’s poem, Spring Pools, raised its hand. So here’s a little post about Spring Pools.

I found the poem this week while diving into The Ecopoetry Anthology (and you can even find a PDF sample online, I just discovered), a book I bought while I was still living in Seattle. I pulled out the book this week because I’ve been working on a recalcitrant little (or perhaps book-length?) poem that has me asking lots of questions about trees, bogs, swamps, brambles, thorns, mud, loam, etc. and I figured some sidewinding into other poems might help shake out a few words. I was stunned when I came across Spring Pools:

These pools that, though in forest, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods–
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

Why was I stunned? First, I’d never known about this poem, never read it before, never even heard of it. It’s not one of the big Robert Frost poems that people always refer to.

Second, I forget how dark Frost can be, and I forget about his fascination with darkness and light. There’s the tension throughout Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, the speaker wanting to stay and watch the woods fill up with snow, wanting to stay in the lovely, dark, deep woods, but having to wrest himself away from the pull of the dark to resume his life in the world. And in Design, the line: “What but design of darkness to appall?” A line that gets even more interesting when you realize that in the root of “appall” is “pale”, the word describing the physiological response of going pale in the face of something disturbing, troubling, horrifying. The poem describes a white flower, a spotted spider, and the moth captured by the spider, and the speaker is troubling over the amorality, I think, of nature. The darkness in nature’s design turns the speaker pale.

I like the way that Frost turns the seasons around in Spring Pools, seeming to prefer the clarity of late winter. In the early spring, before the buds have opened, the pool can mirror the “total sky” nearly perfectly, “almost without defect”. The unfurling and surge of spring seems almost sinister, the thirst of the trees draining away the pools. The “pent-up buds” seem almost criminal, their hunger for life, Frost separates, puts at odds with “nature” although of course the trees and buds are part of nature. But he casts them as figures that “darken” nature. Summer isn’t typically thought of as a dark season, but in this poem it is. Those thirsty leaves are destructive as they “blot out” “drink up” “sweep away” the preferred pool. I love the way that line hammers home the speaker’s view, perhaps his anger or sense of loss or futility or inevitability, with not one, not two, but three verb-adverb phrases.

Other stuff I love in this poem:
1) the parallel in the first stanza: “And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver, /
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,” the daring internal rhyme and rhythm of that move, and the way that the parallel construction also underscores the sense of everything whisking away, the unstoppable change and loss in the movement of the seasons.
2) the parallel of adverbs in the last two lines of the first stanza: “not out by any brook or river” “but up by roots” and the subtle suggestion that the former would be preferable or more natural. Why would “out by any brook or river” be preferable to “up by roots”? Maybe it wouldn’t. Why is the thirst of a brook or river less disturbing than the thirst of tree roots? I don’t know. And maybe this preference isn’t there. But there is something in the “And” and “But” that suggests a preference to me.
3) the hidden source of the angst. For what anguish is all this loss a metaphor? There are no humans in this poem. Even the speaker is less present than the speaker in Stopping By Woods (besides, there’s that horse and the owner of the woods, presumably tucked up in his house in the village), and certainly less than in Flower Gathering. Who is the speaker and what is going on in his life that has him turning summer into a season of death and longing for pristine early spring to stop in its tracks?

Well, this may have done the trick. I feel my eyelids getting heavy. And I certainly feel deeper inside the poem than I did an hour ago.

I have some thoughts that this might be a fun exercise to pursue. So maybe you’ll see more of these posts in the near future.

For now, good night. Good morning.

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