Birches, bitches

Having caught up with Breaking Bad and now watched the final episode, I've figured out what Jesse Pinkman's favorite Robert Frost poem, from high school sophomore English class, must necessarily be.

It must be "The Birches":

"When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves . . .
 

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". . . [I was] once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open."

Frost was a complicated person - was he a Heisenberg in the lives of those who knew him? - but he had a gift for toeing a metrical line within conversational syntax in a way that could make words strange and palpable.

There are false notes in "Birches." The grandiose and self-important metacommentary at the end - "earth's the right place for love" - is drivel. But the sheer audacity of committing to a verbal painting of the impact of an ice storm on birch trees, and meditating on how a child's curiousity mediates nature - that's thrilling.

The lines in "The Birches" that give me chills - and you should hear Frost read these lines in a recording available via the Poetry Foundation app - unfold a similie to describe how bent birches, after the ice storm, survive for years under the majestic if indifferent dome of heaven:

"You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun."

Wow. If you show up every day, can you sometimes write lines like that?


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