And if you’re lost enough to find yourself

Dear Robert,

Something strong and heavy built upon a void: that’s what your poem “Directive” looks like for me. You are at the heart of paradox, that’s the place where you are writing from: “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”; “the height/ of country where two village cultures faded/ into each other”, both of them lost. In a poem called “Directive”, a speaker – the poetic persona – is determined to get us lost; moreover, he is asking that we find ourselves by… losing ourselves. How do we go somewhere that doesn’t even exist anymore? How do we find something that is no longer anywhere to be found?

Through a leap of faith, your speaker seems to be saying. Or grace, the waters we drink from a broken goblet. Or maybe in a dream, guided by this poetic voice into a place that is both imaginary and real.

Strong is the temptation to submit and follow this voice into some sort of escape. In the vein of Thoreau’s Walden (“not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations”) and Luke 9:24 (King James version: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake the same shall save it”), the poem is asking that we submit to it, to its journey, and that we find it by getting lost into it. This strange, incantatory voice is asking that we go away by staying with the mystery, the doubt, and the trouble.

The speaker is giving us the most fleeting directives – back out, make yourself at home, weep, and drink. He is pointing us where to go, what to imagine and how to feel. And he is taking us back to aporia, a childlike state: the original source from where we will be able to become whole again by drinking from a broken goblet belonging to the children’s playhouse.

If we follow this voice all the way through this road – the road that should have been a quarry –, by the end we will be willing to take whatever the poem is offering us: clear water from the first spring; our salvation, brimming in a broken cup, fresh, and so full of longing.

I drink to it, my friend.

Yours truly,



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.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry –
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods’ excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
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. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”

  • Source: Robert Frost, Steeple Bush (1947)

The Vladimir’s road, 1892 by Isaac Levitan

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