Imagine: in the twilight of a river, trout rising to the hairs and netted wings
of water walkers, and yourself casting a baited line
toward shadows. There is no talking, and the mind learns
to drift, to take in the slightest signs, as if there's already begun
under the surface what will come to pass; it will lure you along.
Reed, ripple, raccoon-scratches on the mudbank
lend their wisdom and their indifference to the moments before the pole bends double
or you give up, walk to the lighted house, and join the others at a table
to talk of life, love, logic and the senses, memory, promise, betrayal, character
and fate--the driving notion
that around the river bend a magnificent fish waits, prickling the black water.
This "first" poem's first word--"imagine"--provides her method for grappling with abstractions. Very often she imagines situations through which she can more fully understand the inherent tensions that exist within a single word. Frost is a definitional poet in the way that Dickinson, or Kay Ryan, is driven to understand the boundaries and dimensions of what a word actually means; but wheras Dickinson relies on metaphor to establish meaning and whereas Ryan relies on sound to discover refining qualities of words, Frost often relies on narrative. Williams' "no ideas but in things" becomes, in Frost's hands, "no ideas but in scenes" or "no ideas but in situations."
There is much that goes on under "under the surface" of any situation, of any word; and Frost's poems don't always explicitly tell us what the weighted depths are over which we travel. The depths are simply there, making each moment, each conflict, each truth, each word, more complex than we can fully account for and describe. In poems like "Fury" and "Pure," the situations she explores, as well as the definitions, have behind them a mind that can't quite bear, or come to terms with, the inherent separation that lies between the self's understanding of experience and the experience itself and between what a word is and what we try to say a word is. As she says in "Fury," "She saw she would need millennia to find a way/to comprehend the reason for the difference between her early ideals//...and what had become of them." In "Pure," given the horrible reality of an accidental shooting, the mind simply cannot bear the reality of the experience, the fate that has unfolded; and the poem leads in the direction of a father's suicide. Even that reality isn't explicitly stated but is, rather, implied--its own kind of weighted depth--born along on the details of "a gun, the example of wounds, a shell's ease in the chamber, as he loaded,/the speed of the night chill" while the father's mind tries "to bear that which God took from His own mind when he could not, not for another moment..." Alone with only these details and thus orphaned from meaning, the father, we fear, succumbs.
Frost's poems wrestle as much as anyone's with what "fate" actually is, whether the self should accept it, shape it, question it, tempt it, or, as in many of her poems, resist it. In fact, even though this first poem suggests that "the mind learns/to drift, to take in the slightest signs," other poems in her collection feature figures, usually women, who resist fate, or outcomes, or boundaries, or definitions. In "Fury," the woman who has "told herself to be pleasant" before "the sleeping man" finds her resistance in sarcasm, which she speaks before the man--or does she mean God?--has fully awakened. In "Nothing," a mother's child slides toward an ice precipice, "gravity and momentum wrestling on his shoulders." Unable to do anything and unable to accept the nothingness that will follow, she begins to "pretend" that he doesn't exist, as if in doing so she can, through her own will, negate the horror of the "fate" that is unfolding before her. She sees "a snowy peak and clouds/spilling so softly they create a whirlpool of silence. She lets herself be in it." While "forces" play with her son, "she will not hearken or give them the pleasure of her scream."
Frost's speaker in her poems is, in many ways, "the one who gropes," as she says in "Truth." What is the truth of a word? What definitions are adequate, and which definition's "doubtful edges" must be pushed back? Is the attempt to define a word merely an exercise in saying "fabricated things," or is definition a way to surrender "to something larger"? Perhaps her definitions are a kind of fury toward, or a refusal of, or a repudiation of, whatever "pure" understandings we assume to have. We may "talk of life, love, logic, and the senses, memory, promise, betrayal, character/and fate," but whatever fullness we know is continually revised by "the driving notion" that there is something more to "imagine"--even if all that comes of our effort is the recognition that we are "swept along the surface of an immense current"; even if we may never know what hides beneath the images, scenes, and stories composing the mind's boundaries, each one perhaps only recompense or shame or horror or thrill or denial or consent or urgency or...