The Chimney and the Grindstone

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By Phil Scraton:

Certain moments capture the imagination, stop us in our tracks, and are the stuff of coincidence. And so it happened on a cold, calm afternoon before the snow storm arrived. The previous evening I’d been reading an anthology of Robert Frost’s poems compiled and reviewed by Louis Untermeyer. Frost identified the ‘complete poem’ as ‘one where an emotion has found its thought, and the thought has found the words’. His poems often celebrate the great outdoors, sharply observed, laced with metaphor and emotionally stirring. He commits to place and to the detail he finds there: ‘And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm/ And the fence post carried a strand of wire’.

In his poem The Need of Being Versed in Country Things from which the above lines are taken, Frost invites the reader to reflect on the remnants of a house lost to fire. It stands alongside ‘The barn across the way/ That would have joined the house in flame/ Had it been for the will of the wind, was left/ To bear forsaken the place’s name’. While the poem celebrates the continuing life offered by the dilapidated barn as birds, flying to and fro, ‘rejoiced in the nest they kept’, Frost suggests they ‘wept’ its neglect and decline. For:

The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.

A few pages further into the anthology I read The Grindstone, a lengthy poem ostensibly detailing the mechanics of tool sharpening yet offering a more profound exploration of memory, the seasons and aging. Undoubtedly inspired by Frost’s proximity to working the land, I found the poem’s metaphors obscure, in contrast to its opening clever irony:

Having a wheel and four legs of its own
Has never availed the cumbersome grindstone
To get it anywhere that I can see.
These hands have helped it go and even race;
Not all the motion, though, they ever lent,
Not all the miles it may have thought it went,
Have got it one step from the starting place.

Despite its four legs and the distance travelled by the turning of its wheel, the grindstone never moved, trapped by its weight, destined to be ‘outside hungry, in the cold’.

Robert Frost’s poems are simultaneously close to and distant from the mundane relationships between objects and subjects, things and people. They are situated in clearly defined locations inspired by his love of New England, yet rarely are they named. Where was the chimney in its isolation? Who had lived in the house aflame? Did they survive? What of the grindstone? How many had turned the wheel in its working life?

Such thoughts came and went as we walked the trails near Amherst. As we climbed higher, our design was to emerge from the dense forest to an open ridge from where we would view the valley below. It was an expectation frustrated as the bright winter sun flickered through branches like a temperamental strobe. Our way was long lost but the vague horseshoe we had walked hopefully would return us to the path earlier abandoned. Reaching the crest of the hill the thicket relented slightly and there it stood; a solitary chimney, its hearth intact, the building gone to ground. Frost’s line was exact: ‘Now the chimney was all of the house that stood’.

Incredibly, the only recognisable object in the wreckage other than a broken door was a grindstone. On its four legs, not ‘one step from its starting place’, it stood defiant against the elements. It was a remarkable coincidence; two poems just one stride apart. In hills familiar to Frost a chance memorial had been created. As we meandered down through frozen undergrowth I wondered about the ruin, about who had ridden the grindstone and the tools it had sharpened. And I marvelled on the happenstance of arriving at that place at all, let alone so soon after my introduction to both poems.

Revisiting the questions of the chimney and the grindstone, of the fire and the toil, it was evident that our wayward walk had been a pilgrimage of sorts … emotion – thought – words.

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Words & Pictures: Phil Scraton

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