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Wednesday, 17 June 2009 19:18

Snippets from a poet’s life

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Fall of Frost by Brian Hall. Penguin Group, 2008. 352 pages

Since his death in 1963, Robert Frost has come to occupy a place in the highest echelon of American poets. In anthologies and textbooks, poems like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “The Road Less Traveled,” and “Mending Wall” remain perennial favorites. The last 10 years alone attest to Frost’s continuing popularity, having given birth to two more biographies — Jay Parini’s Robert Frost: A Life and Jeffrey Myers’ Robert Frost: A Biography — as well as to such works as The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost and The Notebooks of Robert Frost.

We may now add to these volumes Brian Hall’s fictionalized life of the poet, Fall of Frost (Penguin Group, ISBN 978-0-14-311491-8, $15).

Hall’s novel follows a sort of accordion structure, that is, the book tells the story of Frost’s life not in a straightforward narrative, but in a series of short chapters, folds of time and circumstance emblematic of different events in Frost’s life, with the folds themselves coming together by the end of the book to give us a unique picture of this extraordinary poet, his work, and his often harsh world.

Chapters 15 and 16, for example, show us Frost as a child in San Francisco with a bully for a father — he died young, an alcoholic — and his mother reading to him, a backward, sickly child and a late reader. Chapter 17 then sweeps us to Derry Farm in New Hampshire, 1902, while Chapter 18 lands us in Amherst, Mass., in 1932 (These “chapters,” by the way, are sometimes only half-a-page long).

By focusing in this way on different facets of Frost’s life and world, and by writing poetically and impressionistically himself, Hall brings Frost alive for his readers. We are made to feel Frost’s sufferings — his struggles to earn a living, the deaths of four of his six children before his own death, the mental problems of his sister and one of his daughters. Again and again, we bear witness to Frost’s gritty determination to overcome his multitudinous difficulties, to triumph as a poet.

In some of the Fall of Frost’s more amusing and more touching sections, Hall shows us Frost at the end of his life. It is 1962, and Frost is traveling to the Soviet Union, an old man sick and half-deaf on a quixotic mission to lessen the nuclear tensions between the USSR and the United States. Frost’s forthrightness causes consternation in both camps, and Hall’s depiction of Khrushchev and Kennedy in relation to the poet are particularly entertaining. When the Washington Post reports that “Frost Says Khrushchev Sees U.S. as ’Too Liberal’ To Defend Itself,” Kennedy explodes, shouting “As it is, half of Congress wants me to invade Cuba tomorrow. They’ll use this! It makes me look soft. It makes everything worse.”

In the meantime, we see Khrushchev wondering if the Americans have sent Frost to him as a test of some sorts, a test which he can’t quite understand. This particular chapter ends with the Soviet premier opening a manuscript by an unknown author which, though Hall doesn’t tell us so, is Alexander Solzhenitsyn‘s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. As his aide reads to him from the manuscript, “The premier closes his eyes. He feels with pleasure the warmth of the setting sun on his face.” It isn’t just the sun that is setting, of course, but the Soviet Union which even then was fading into twilight.

In an “Author’s Note” at the conclusion of Fall of Frost, Brian Hall points out that he has approached his novel “in the spirit of a biographer who wanted to stretch his usual form to accommodate more speculation than nonfiction generally allows.” Hall paraphrases the conversations in his novel from Frost’s public statements, his diaries and letters, and the records left by the poet’s friends and family. Here in Hall’s depiction we come face-to-face as well with Frost’s amazing ability not only to remember hundreds of lines of poetry, his own and those of other writers, but to bring them into conversation at appropriate moments.

Fall of Frost is a pleasure to read, a triumph in portraiture for all who love poetry, biography, and fine writing.

•••

Although Kerry Madden’s most recent book is Up Close: Harper Lee (ISBN 9780670010950, $16.99, 2009), young readers this summer may want to seek out some of her earlier books as well. In her Maggie Valley trilogy — Gentle’s Holler, Louisiana’s Song, and Jessie’s Mountain — Madden slips readers into the early 1960s and the lives of the Weems family. Here we meet Livy Two Weems, the12-year-old daughter of a Daddy who is “a poet in his soul” and a Mama who “claims a paycheck is worth a sight more than a dang poem.”

With nine siblings, including a new-born baby, Livy Two has her hands full helping her parents with chores and taking care of her younger sister, Gentle. Like her father, she also has big dreams of making it in the music world, writing songs and then playing them on her battered guitar.

Livy Two’s character, and the tone of these three books in general, can be sampled in Louisiana’s Song in a scene where Daddy is still recovering from a car accident. Livy Two lands a job with Miss Attickson, the bookmobile lady, and as they ride through the mountains delivering books, Madden gives us insights into the lives of the mountain poor, their love of books and learning, and the shy compassion of Livy Two, who finally summons the courage to ask for a book on brain trauma that might help her understand and care for her stricken father.

Adolescent readers should enjoy these stories with their local color and their messages of hope and the power of determination in the face of personal obstacles.

Highly recommended.

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