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Frost at Midnight: The Lost Poem

robert-frost-350

Verse-Drama in One Act

By Gary Corseri

Synopsis

Awakened by a nightmare, Frost attempts to exorcise his demons by writing a poem. In the middle of his efforts, he’s confronted by Carole, the son lost to him by suicide.

Characters

Robert Frost-- The poet, about 60.
Mrs. Frost-- His wife, late 50s.
Carole Frost-- Their son, 30ish.

Scene

Bedroom on the top floor of the Derry, New Hampshire farmhouse. A storm rages outside; icy flakes beat against the windows. In the snow-light, the dull light of an obscure moon and the pale yellow light of an outside lamppost, two figures huddle under an old quilt. The hair on the pillows is short and white, and shoulder-length dark gray. The white head bobs on a sea of self-afflictions.

FROST

(In sleep; excited--) No...don't do it...

MRS FROST

(Awaking--) What?

FROST

(Asleep--) Mmmm...Mmmm...

MRS FROST rises on an elbow, listens. The wind howls outside, but the figure beside her sleeps quietly now. MRS FROST lowers her head on the pillow...After a few moments--

FROST

(Asleep--) Damn boy! Don't! Don’t!

MRS FROST

Robert?... Robert!

FROST

(Asleep--) Don't!... No!

MRS FROST

Robert! (She shakes him--)

FROST

(Awaking--) Uh!...What?...What?

MRS FROST

A dream...Are you all right?

FROST

(Turning on night lamp, sitting up in bed; looking around--)

Where are my glasses? Woman?

MRS FROST

In the drawer...Go back to bed...

FROST

(Mimicking her--) "Go back to bed...Go back to bed!"
(As he fumbles in the drawer--) Which drawer?

MRS FROST

(Irritably) The nightstand drawer ... where they always are ... behind your papers.

FROST

(Finding them--) Why didn't you say so?

MRS FROST

(Wearily--) They’re always there…Sleep, Robert...

FROST

(Softer now--) Go back to bed...

MRS FROST:

(Likewise--) Are you all right?

FROST

Yes...(To himself--) A half-lost dream that took a half-familiar form...

Sitting up, he puts his fur-lined slippers on, shakes his head, rises...

MRS FROST

Will you write?

FROST

Yes...

MRS FROST

Wear your robe.

FROST

(Mimicking--) "Wear your robe..." (softer--) Go to sleep. I'm a big boy...

He touches her shoulder gently, rises, puts on the heavy flannel robe, slips his glasses into the breast pocket, and walks with the careful gait of an old, but vigorous man to the next room. MRS FROST sits up in bed, shakes her head--

MRS FROST

(Turning the night lamp off--) He never remembers.

As the night lamp goes off, FROST throws the switch to the light in his study...He takes a sheaf of papers from a shelf, sits in his wooden chair, lifts the slanted, improvised writing platform from the floor, settles it on the broad, flattened chair arm, places paper on the platform. He squints at the page, looks around--

FROST

(To himself--) Now, what in blazes...Where did she hide my glasses?

He checks the lower pockets of his robe, then the breast pocket, finds the glasses with relief, puts them on carefully--

Let's see...let's see...(Erupting--) Damnation!

He checks his pockets again, stands up, searches his desk until he finds the pencil he wants, sits at his writing chair again. He checks the point of the pencil, licks it, andwrites...

After a while, reading to himself:

Not for the sake of the old man's moon,
ringed in snow from the farmhouse light,
not for her he lay beside--
but for itself it came, from beyond the night.

And for itself it stayed,
and put its bone-cold claw
on the old man's brow
so that he wept and prayed
while the wind uproared--

(To himself, critic now) Hmmm... (Emphatically) Garbage!

The wind rises; a draft stirs the papers on the desk. FROST covers the papers with his hands, looks around the room, feeling a presence. He turns the collar of his robe up, crosses out some lines, then continues writing.

CAROLE

(Offstage; eldritch) Father...

FROST

(Looking up nervously now) Who's there?... (He doubles his editing efforts; reads--) "while the voice uproared..." (He scratches out the word.) "…while the ghost uproared...ghostly uproar..." (Looking around--) That you, Carole? ... Show yourself ... I'm not afraid...

FROST puts a paperweight on his notes, walks to the window; stands with back to audience, hands clasped behind his back, watching the eddying snow. His shoulders hunch as he realizes the impossibility of discerning the form he seeks.

FROST

Why don't you come?

(Sighing, turning to audience)

Why won't you come?...
Wasn't it a night like this, ten years to a night like this,
your torn soul howled in a winter wind like this,
and something broke your mind in two?
Fiery white, the snow rose then
around the circle of that witness moon.
The white, blind eye of that tell-tale moon...
Wasn't it something that I failed to do?

He sighs heavily, turns to the window again, looks out; after a while, he turns from the window, shakes his head. Almost a chant--

A father should know his son's bones rattle,
walk in his blood while the blood beats in his son's ears,
reconnoiter the preceding path, make wise--
not bury his son because he couldn't hear...

The wind howls again.

(Insistently) Come! I am old...I am not afraid!

Lights off as the wind howls and shutters flap against the wooden frame of the house. Spotlight FROST standing stock still, staring. Another spotlight falls upon a corner of the room: smoke rises in this light. As the smoke clears, we see the spectral form of CAROLE, standing behind the light. Throughout the following exchanges, FROST relates to the light, not to the form of his son.

CAROLE

(With a wan, thin voice--) I came because you said so.

FROST

Show me your true form!

There is no answer. FROST approaches the circle of light. Tentatively, he places his hand into the rising smoke.

FROST

Ahhh! (Quickly withdrawing, cradling his hand--) Cold!
Cold as the eyes of one we loved and wronged...

CAROLE

Why did you call me?

FROST

(Suspicious--) Did I?

CAROLE

Then, I'll go...

The spotlight begins to dim.

FROST

Wait! ... Wait ... (Nervously)
Why should I wager you're the thing you seem?
Some New England demon you may be,
a witch from Edwards' time,
a poor child who knew how to swim
and failed the test of water.
How can I trust my senses when my senses reel?
I am old...I am afraid...Give me a sign!

CAROLE

(Plaintively) Father...

FROST puts the back of his hand against his mouth--

FROST

Carole ... my son ... my son ...

He moves his hands around the smoky light, an inch or two from the circumference, as though caressing it...

FROST

Is this what's become of your fine head?
While the world made much of me,
could I pass so little on?

(Falling to his knees before the light--)

Son-spirit, spirit that I never knew,
why do you haunt my dreams?

CAROLE

I came because you called.

FROST

That's some misbegotten cause!
I called because you haunt me!
Tell him, Spirit--whatever you may be:

He should have been a stronger man!
His soul cut down his soul!
Why trouble me for absolution?
That's a thing like freedom--
that is not given; that is seized!

CAROLE

Then let me go...

The light flickers as a draft comes from the window.

FROST

Not yet! Not yet! (He reaches for the circle of light) A word ... One word ...

FROST goes to the window, pounds the crossbeam with his fists, even though it's shut tight. (To the specter--)

Stay!

The light grows strong again.

CAROLE

One small word might have made a difference.
How much could one small word have cost?

FROST

That's the thing you want to throw at me!
You roll it year by year like dirty snow
until it teems with weight and volume.
I gathered in the plaudits for fatherly acuities,
but couldn't spare a penny of a word for you.
I know the word...

The light flickers. (Quickly--)

That week you stayed at Derry
when you showed your poems,
if I had said "pride" then--

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CAROLE

Words were always burrs between our saddles.

FROST

You wrote your heart out--
but there was no heart in your writing.

CAROLE

You said as much--

FROST

I never could say anything that wasn't there.

CAROLE

You knew how to wring it out on any paper
and make it seem like it was there in you.

FROST

That's just a trick of Nature.
I wrote out of that fact.
You never learned the trick.
I never learned to show you.
Blame me for being sleight-of-hand,
but not knowing how to show it.
Just a trick--for there being so little
of what I wanted most to be there.
Yankee wisdom: looking in the face of facts;
teaching facts to fetch for you.
You took everything so serious!
Life is a deadly serious game--but still a game!

CAROLE

I played it--and I lost...

FROST

You should have played it better!
Was it pride you wanted, pride instilled by me?
It was stubbornness you lacked--stubbornness
to take the worst and throw it back and laugh
and say, "Is that the worst that you could give?
Give me more, you haven't seen my best yet!"

CAROLE

You saw my best...it was not good enough...

The light flickers, FROST reaches to hold it back.

FROST

Carole, wait, don't go! There must be some way we can--

CAROLE

What?

FROST

Get back the thing we lost.

CAROLE

How?

The spotlight flickers and is off. When the light of the room is on again, CAROLE is gone. FROST looks around quickly, goes to the window, peers out. MRS FROST enters with a cup of hot cider. She looks at her husband to see that he is well, then sets the cider down on his desk. FROST doesn't see her. Without saying a word, she is about to leave--

FROST

(To the faded vision)

Wait! … Carole!

(To himself)

He should have made some accusation. I'm no good doing it myself ...

MRS FROST

Robert...?

FROST

(Coming around to her; excited--) Did you see ... did you hear ... nothing?

MRS FROST

Just you, talking to yourself again.

FROST

You know what day this is, how many years?

MRS FROST

The day we practice all year to forget.
The day we never mention...
I know...

FROST

He was here...

MRS FROST

(Gently) Robert...

FROST

(inspecting the room) He was here ...

She puts her hand tenderly on his shoulder.

MRS FROST

You couldn't have stopped him...

FROST

He should have been stronger!

MRS FROST

Leave him in his world!

FROST

It wasn't just the poems,
but everything around them.
He wanted me to say that they were good.
But the thing around them was no good.
He was trying to escape into the poems.

MRS FROST

Let him go!

FROST

They had no center!
Everything he tried was like that.
He thought they'd give him back
his marriage and his work
and what I never gave him.

Poetry's no refuge--
it's a seething pit.
We go there to escape from there,
holding a scrap of wisdom
in our burning hands.

MRS FROST

It is a selfishness the way you call him back
to carry on the speech.
He's gone now...Let him go!

FROST

(Wounded)
Is that the thing you want to throw at me?
That old cudgel?
You've carped that tune before!

MRS FROST

(Wearily; and warily--) This isn't about us ... It's just yourself, talking to yourself.

FROST

You said that I was selfish!

MRS FROST

Selfish--as a man is when he's self-possessed,
and owned by something greater than himself...
Why don’t you go to sleep?

FROST

(Not placated)

You said it. Don't deny it. (Looking around)
Other ears than mine can hear you!
This is no night for idle talk.

MRS FROST

I never quarreled with the life we lived.
You did the thing you had to do. I know.
I loved you for your poems and your blue eyes
and nothing more...
Did you ever hear me murmur "More!"?
We took the worst of it. We made our bed.

FROST

(Moved; taking her gently by the shoulders)

I wanted him to say--I did my best...
We never could say that to one another.

MRS FROST

He mis-learned that from you...
You couldn't say it, so you wrote.
Now write finale ... Let him go!

FROST:

(Spent)
How could he take his precious life
and throw it in the wind?
I could have forgiven anything but that.
God would have forgiven anything but that.
Had I some hand in it?

(Looking at his hands; anguished, tearfully)

I curse these old man's hands! (Hits his hands against his temple.)

MRS FROST:

(She takes his hands; kisses them gently--)

Robert, Robert, this will not do...
These hands are life-preservers, not life-takers.
It's over, Robert...Let him go...

FROST

(Wearily) What could I have done?

MRS FROST

Nothing...

FROST

I made things happen on the page...

MRS FROST

(Wryly) Man writes, God publishes...

FROST

(With a heaving sigh) I'm tired... I’m tired now …

MRS FROST

(She feels exhausted, too) Go to sleep now...

FROST

Yes ... Soon...

MRS FROST

(Raising her collar against a sudden draft) It's cold! (Reminding him) We need to get the wood in in the morning...

FROST

(Absently) Yes ...Yes ... I'll be all right ... Soon ... Soon …

She watches him carefully, then exits.

FROST

(Intrigued with himself; exhaling forcefully-)

Like a necromancer of old!
Faust in all his power!
That I could do a thing like that--
to call my heart's blood from the dead!

(Meditatively--)

Pride...
The fools flourished, and I put on pride.
After the plowing and the digging, dirt under nails,
into the night laboring, clothing myself with pride.
The work went out, and the announcements came back:

(prissy imitation--)

"We do not think you good enough to marry our magazine."
"Please follow our guidelines...Subscription form enclosed!"

And I established my house in pride.
Pride took me to Shakespeare's realm.
Pride took me home and crowned my head with laurels.
Hard-won--but I could turn my back on it.
To love it--but not to need it!
I could not tell him so...
I could not make him understand!

He sits at his writing desk again. Thinking to himself--

We need it to begin anything worth beginning.
And to end what's worth ending.
Somewhere in between, to walk out,
and never look back,
as we walk out on an overbearing love.

He writes; the wind howls outside; oblivious, Frost writes quickly, with intensity; the shutters beat against the frame house and Frost writes. The draft ruffles his hair, and he huddles over the paper and writes. After a while, he reads--

Not for the sake of the old man's moon
ringed in the halo of the farmhouse light,
not for hers he lay beside,
but for itself it came, from beyond their night;

for itself it touched the old man's brow,
and blew cold breath in the wizened ear.
The snow swirled up to the barnyard door;
over the roof of the world lay fear.

Over the roof of the heart lay hope:
that the words asleep in the snow would rise;
that they might hear the words' wings beating;
and the words, at last, would make them wise...

FROST puts the paper down and smoothes the page. With a labored motion he rises, shuffles to the door. He stretches his large frame, extending his arms above his head. He is pleased.

He turns the light off and exits. As he shuts the door, the spectral light appears over his desk. The wind howls, the shutters beat against the house. A gust of wind comes from nowhere and scatters the papers... .

Lights out.

Frost at Midnight: the Lost Poem, premiered at Stage Door Players in Atlanta, Georgia in 1993, and was performed at the Tri-Cities Neighborhood Playhouse in Atlanta in 1994. It was first published in “The Chattahoochee Review” in 2001. (“The Lost Poem” is the original work of the play’s author.)

Gary Corseri