Poetry

Poetry Sunday:
“Before the Killing Frost,” by Diana Whitney

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

“Before the Killing Frost” is free verse of 24 lines organized into ten stanzas: a tercet, tercet, tercet, couplet, single-line stanza; tercet, tercet, tercet, couplet, single-line stanza. For readers like me who love to geek out on poetry analysis, it can be represented numerically as this pulsing series: 3 3 3 2 1 3 3 3 2 1. The pattern provides definite if subtle scaffolding for a lyric that captures the speaker’s emotion in the instant she realizes that a tipping point has been reached from late summer into early fall. As such, “Before the Killing Frost” is one degree further along the seasonal continuum from last month’s poem, “In Late Summer” by Tess Taylor, which you can read here. For some, these liminal spaces between seasons are often the most evocative, the sadness of what is passing coupled with anticipation of what is to come, a tension that adds frisson and amplification to today’s poem.

The focus here is on loss—what we lose when summer ends—represented, paradoxically, as a kind of gain. The speaker begins in frank gratitude, “It was too much to ask,” before going on to a litany of time’s subtractions. The weeds have finally “stopped growing,” a cessation that frees up the tangle of summer growth so that ripened fruit and flowers are “free for the taking.” And look what treasures these fruits are: “fist apples” and “blackberry thumbs.” Those figures of speech are interesting for a couple of reasons beyond offering a new way to see familiar fruit.

Both “fist” and “thumb” convey size, but in opposite directions: fist-sized apples are smaller than usual, and more concentratedly firm and tart, while thumb-sized blackberries seem huge. Another item of interest is that the hand part in the first instance (“fist apples”) functions as an adjective and in the second as a noun (“blackberry thumbs”). It’s a minor point, maybe, but one that shows the way poets sometimes employ words as different parts of speech to add syntactic interest or to invigorate old tropes. That both images derive from parts of a human hand suggests the act of picking, holding, and eating the fruit.

The speaker’s sense of gratitude—for loss—is reinforced in lines 6-8’s “Yes / everything promised / had come to pass.” What had been promised, of course, was not just summer’s abundance but also its transience. In other words, one of the things promised that came to pass was that everything would pass, another example of wordplay and paradox. “Even the burning bush / turned crimson” has biblical overtones created by the reference to a burning bush, like the one Moses saw. That allusion makes me see the apple image another way, as a reference to Eden and another kind of fall besides the season described in the poem. As you can see, allusions like this widen and deepen a poem’s frame of reference, and so its resonance and power.

Point of view is not revealed until line 9 when the voice, which at first seems like omniscient third, resolves into a “we.” I interpret that pronoun as referencing not just two human beings who lay themselves down to experience nature, but also as a collective or communal “we.” As explained in a previous column featuring Tracy K. Smith, found here, the communal “we” also widens and deepens a poem’s experience by enlarging reader access and engagement. The “we” draws us into the poem, makes us feel a part of what is being described, and evokes the larger world of all humanity living through seasonal change.

Lines 9-14 bring readers right into the experience of the poem, inviting us to lay down for a moment in the grass to appreciate nature in one of its more mutable moments. We smell the thyme and see the canopy of ripe sunflowers nodding overhead. Notice here how the author manages to convey life that, albeit in the process of dying, is still very much alive. The thyme is “creeping,” a present participle verb expressing continuing, not completed action, and the sunflowers are still standing tall enough to make a “roof” overhead. Notice also the wonderful punning accomplished by use of “thyme,” a homophone of “time,” and the symbolism of sunflowers, plants that quite literally track time’s progress of the sun across the sky. In this section, senses are triggered in an especially vivid way. We experience the past and the future more in our heads than in our bodies, so the poem holds us in our bodies. Time is arrested, and the poem accomplishes what we all long for—a momentary abeyance in its march of forward progress. Primary colors show subtle differences in hue, with the red of pansy differentiated from the “darker red” of beets.

Even the choice of which red flower and vegetable to mention seems deliberate. Pansies are from the French word for thought (“pensée”) and Ophelia, weaving them into her hair before she drowns herself, says, “And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts” [Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5]. Beets symbolize an opposite concept: love and the muscular, red human heart. What makes these colors so vivid is that they are polar opposites on the color wheel, red against the “green glass” of tomatoes “refusing to blush,” or ripen.

From this point onward, the point of view is first-person singular, an “I” who prepares for the following year by taking down the ladder, planting bulbs (“those hard white tears / in their skins”), and bringing in the “last harvest.” While completing these tasks, the speaker sees autumn geese in migration, “sudden” and “parting the air.” The poem closes with the birds morphing into a metaphor: “My life / / rushing past me again.”

I like the way “Before the Killing Frost” plays with time, stopping it in the present like all good lyrics but also encompassing the past (summer) as well as the future (“everything promised” and anticipation of the next spring). Its expansive vision reminds me of these lines from T. S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton” from Four Quartets: “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.” [Source here] I am writing these comments in a camp house on a lake in Vermont, seeing what feels to me like the exact moment described in the poem—the last rays of August sun gilding rock ledges already cooling in ever-widening pockets of shade—and I am filled with Eliot’s wild hope that “What might have been is an abstraction / Remain[s] a perpetual possibility.” [Id.]

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