VITAL SIGNSrnPOETRYrnThe Ax, the Scythe,rnand the Penrnby Bruce GuernseyrnA~ s we speed along tlie informationrnlighway at the close of one niillcnninmrnand the beginning of another, itrnmight be wise to stop for a moment, if notrnby woods on a snowy evening, at least atrnthe next rest area. When Robert Frostrnslowed his mare to a halt that Decemberrnnight a hundred years ago, he knew hernhad all those famous promises to keep,rnbut he also knew he needed a moment tornreflect on his life, as maybe we do on ourrnown —and our nation’s—at this historicrntime. Like Frost, we need to listen.rnhnaginc him listening now. Instead ofrnthe rhythm of “easy wind and downyrnflake,” what might he hear in how wernspeak today? As a poet, he would wonderrnabout our language and the way wernuse diis distinctly human tool. He wouldrnbe sure to ask about our “gatheringrnmetaphor,” Frost’s term for how ourrnwords suggest who we are and wiiat wernaiue. We might have to explain to himrnhow busy everything is these days, sornmuch so that we speak in acron ms, hurriedlyrnrecited on a car phone as we accessrnour PCs through AT&T—or, miles to gornbefore we sleep, stop first at an Al’M.rnLike his “little horse” that snowy night,rnhurry has become our habit, but we dornmore than shake our harness bells whenrnthere is some mistake. Rage is the rule ofrnour roads, and speed the way we communicate,rnas each new corporate merger orrngovernment agency creates yet anotherrnset of initials that will vanish like footprintsrnin a blizzard, lea ing no tracks tornsay that anyone had ever been there at all.rnAnd what can we really do. Frost mightrnhave reason to ask, pausing to watch usrnnow. We work with the tips of our digits,rnnot our hands, as word processors havernreplaced pens and intangible e-mail travelsrnas first as light. The grease monkey hasrntidied up and become the service technician,rnconnecting sensing devices to anrnFxplorer or Land Roer to get us from onernshopping mall to the next —or to Wal-rnMart for the less adventurous—where wernbarter our plastic numbers for some newrndevice that should give us time to noticern(though wc seldom do) if the woods stillrnleft are “lovely, dark, and deep.”rn”What are your tools toda-, and whatrndo they do?” Frost would want to know.rnI le understood that what we put in ourrnhands to work with —like the words dratrnderive from that work —says a lot aboutrnwho we are. “My fa orite tools arc the ax,rnthe scydie, and the pen,” he told a grouprnof communist reporters on his notoriousrnmission to the Soviet Union in 1962.rn’I’hese are certainly not ours today, theserncutting tools of individual labor that fomirnthe metaphoric center of Frost’s poetry.rnPhysical work is even”vhcrc in Frost,rnand its presence is one of his most Americanrntraits, connecting him to I’ranklin,rnEmerson, and Whitman. The speakerrnwas actually doing something in “AfterrnApple Picking,” and his arches still feelrnthe ladder-rungs from climbing into arnMacintosh tree. Frost makes us believernthat his hands were the ones wieldingrnthat scythe in “Mowing,” to Hie point diatrnwe can feel his arms ache. He hasn’trnhired anyone to do this work; that wouldrnbe elitist, undemocratic —down-rightrnEuropean. No, he is the one out in thernfield, hands on that two-handled tool.rnThose who still split firewood w ith an arnwould agree with the speaker in “‘I’wornTramps at Mudtime”: ‘I’here is indeed arnpleasure in die di dim of such work, asrnthe arms and back rise and fall in a kind ofrnnorthwoods dance diat the poet calls “thernlife of muscles rocking .soft.” But tliis is arndance perfornred alone, and Hie out-ofworkrn”tramps” who want to be hired don’trnquite understand wh-auoiie would workrnfor the sheer pleasure of it. But Frost’srnspeaker does, and the tool he uses is clcar-rnIv one riiat can only be lifted alone.rnAn ax is a er’ solitan instrnnient. It isrna tool of separation, cleaving pine inrnclean-cut pieces and, simultaneously,rnisolating die person using it from dioscrnaround him. “Stand back,” a carefulrnchopper says, not wanting to hurt anyonernnearby but at die same time implying: Irnwork Ijy myself at diis job, with this toolrnedged for splitting. Like the heartbeatrndiump of the ax, die se}ihc has its sound.rntoo—one that is also allegorical. It “whispers”rnin “Mow ing,” but of what? Ofrndiings cut down. It speaks through signrnlanguage in “The Tuft of Flowers,”rnwhere a patch of blooms left by a previousrncutter suggests to the speaker thatrn”men work together / Wiether they workrntogedier or apart.” “[‘his affirmahve rcsoluhonrnto die otherwise isolated labor ofrndie poem can’t quite ocrconie the shadowrnof Father Time as he levels the gra.ssrnwidi his sevthe —his fivorite tool, just as itrnwas one of Frost’s.rnIn “The C»rindstoiie,” the grinder,rnwhom Frost calls a “Father-time-likernman,” rides that anhque sharpening machinern”Armed with a scythe.” FromrnFrost’s fourth collection. New Hampshire,rndie poem follows immediately afterrn”The Ax-Helve,” whose French-Canadianrnchopper criticizes his Yankee counterpartrnfor using a handle “‘Made on machine,'”rnas suspicions of the factory andrnits products as was the poet himself Thatrnold grindstone “under a ruinous live applerntree” iiia well have been used byrnAdam, or at least by us descendants ofrnCain: “For all I knew it may have sharpenedrnspears /And arrowheads itself” As arnmachine, the simple grindstone is asrncomplex and modern as can be found inrnFrost, who odierwisc retreats as a “lonernstriker” from the earlv factory world.rnFrost’s crankiness toward the unionized,rnmechanized workplace is obviousrnthroughout his career and best documentedrnin the 19?6 publieahon of A l’irtherrnRange. The tools he praises and usesrnbecome subde political statements; theyrnare weapons of defense against not onlyrnnature’s inevitable onset but the 20tlirncentury’s collective voice, ‘[‘he People,rnYea by Carl Sandburg was also publishedrnin 1936, and it beat out Frost’s bookrnfor the Pulitzer Prize. Frost was madrnenough to take an ax to die Illinois poetrnafter he heard the news.rnThe ax and scythe connect RobertrnFrost w idi the early 2()th century becausernthese tools represent individual labor andrnthe small farm, not unions and agribusiness.rnNot oiiK metaphors linking characterrnwitli time and place, they also symbolizerndie poet’s ]3olitical vision. War’ ofrnanyriiing “deparhnental,” diis sclf-st’ledrn”states’ rights democrat” worked with andrncelebrated tools that affirm a stubborn iii-rn42/CHRONICLESrnrnrn