Of course, the big news is that Season 8 of ER has been released on DVD. This did not get a lot of coverage in the press—I guess it was a pretty busy week with the stock market scare and the breech of the Gaza wall and so forth, so it must’ve gotten pushed off the front pages—but it nonetheless represents an important step forward for people like myself who get their ER exclusively on DVD. We went through the first seven seasons in just a few months, but the banana bag has been empty for a few months now, we’ve been recycling plasma and our IV feed has been cut back to a slow drip, entirely dependent on the network’s release schedule. Will they wait an entire year to issue season nine? It hardly seems possible that the missus and I can maintain our focus and dedication over that kind of a dry spell. It’s conceivable we may have to start watching Battlestar Galactica again.
But these concerns are for another day because, right now, there are 22 action-packed episodes awaiting us and, though we’ve been in possession of them for three days now, we have yet to dig into them because, honestly, I’m kind of up to my ears in the rewatching of season one.
One of the really surprising and strangely rewarding parts of revisiting this territory has been the total shakeup it has given to my sense of the pace of things. I have this sense of my friends and the milestones in their lives—the trajectories of their careers, their marriages, their struggles with alcohol or fidelity—as slowly developing over time.
Carol Hathaway’s relationship with Dr. John Tagliari, for example: I had the distinct memory of this doomed affair as something that developed slowly over the course of the first season, grew into something apparently serious in season two and then culminated when Carol left Tag standing—pathetically, deservedly—at the altar.
Well, not so. As I watch it unfold again I find myself, like Scrooge when he realizes how efficiently the ghosts have done their work, mumbling quietly, “why, they did it all in one season.” Look at what happens when Carol decides she wants to adopt Tatiana, the Russian girl with AIDS: she hesitates to mention it to Tag, finally brings herself to broach the subject, he can’t get on board with the plan, she sees his point, but in the end decides to go through with it, come what may—all this does not develop, as I’d remembered, over the course of several weeks, but rather over the course of a single conversation.
This sort of time compression happens over and over again: Benton’s mom’s decline into senility and death, the dissolution of Dr. Greene’s marriage, the introduction and disappearance of the incomparable Div Cvetic, Psychiatric Attending (who really deserves more attention than I can give him here)—when I think of these things, they have a great weight behind them, as if we built up to them gradually and lived through them over time; as I watch the show again, they pop on screen at a frantic pace, one on top of the other, and we are meant to keep up.
This discrepancy is, of course, a problem with my memory, not with the show. It’s the same phenomenon you might experience when, say, you need to drive one of the kids to a classmate’s birthday party in some corner of the village you have never before visited. You follow the directions carefully—south to the bridge, left at the Starbucks, continue past the church, right at the Starbucks, look for the stone gate that reads Orchard Creek Meadows Estates in improbably ornate gold script and, voila, you are there. It seems to take forever and I am always wondering, between landmarks, have I gone too far? Has it been point three miles yet or only point two? Where the hell am I?
Then you drop the kid off, get back in the car and you’re home before the Car Talk guys have answered a single question.
It reminds me very much of this poem by a poet I like, this young guy—just a kid, really—or at least he was when he wrote it, a little less than a hundred years ago. Ok, ok, it’s The Mountain by Robert Frost and there’s this aspect of it that I’ve always wanted to talk over with someone but the time has just never been right. Until now.
So The Mountain is the first-person narrative of a man, a visitor to a new town, who goes out for a morning walk to investigate a mountain that dominates the local topography. He runs into a farmer “who moved so slow/ With white-faced oxen in a heavy cart,/ It seemed no harm to stop him altogether.” The rest of the poem is the conversational back and forth between these two men—the visitor and the local, the precocious kid and the elder sage, the sophisticate and the old salt, the man who wants to climb the mountain and the one who never saw the need—quite a crowd, really, so it’s no wonder the conversation doesn’t really flow but rather stops and starts as the various constituents try to get a word in edgewise.
Anyway, they chat about the mountain—how to climb it, whether to climb it—and then the farmer offers up this tidbit:
"…There's a brook
That starts up on it somewhere--I've heard say
Right on the top, tip-top--a curious thing..."
And the conversation goes on from there. But, as if he’s afraid the fellow wasn’t listening, the farmer comes back around to the brook, or rather, to be polite (because to be polite is to be indirect), he comes back to the source of the brook:
“…But there's the spring,
Right on the summit, almost like a fountain.
That ought to be worth seeing..."
As a kid, when I first read this poem, I remember thinking, “Now, why shouldn’t there be a brook on the summit of a mountain? I’ve seen springs that bubble up under pressure, and pressure can move water uphill, and the earth’s core is certainly the domain of great forces and water comes from the earth so, why not?
But there had to be something impossible about a spring on a mountaintop because, well, because these gentlemen seemed to think it odd, and these gentlemen were given voice by Robert Frost. Was the poet wrong? Or was I? Even as a teenager, I knew which was more likely.
So I thought about it. And here’s where I got to:
The internal volcanic forces of the earth were certainly capable of expelling water at great pressure—but this was always in the form of geysers of steam and hot water. Springs of cold water got their pressure elsewhere, from the force of gravity, the way that water springs from a punctured can—the flow is determined by and reliant on a body of water above it. Likewise, a mountain spring needs a pool of water—and hence, a certain amount of land—above it. Rain falls from the sky, is gathered into the earth, flows downhill and, when the conditions are right, bursts forth from the ground as a spring.
So what of this mountaintop spring? The farmer says:
"...I guess there's no doubt
About its being there. I never saw it.
It may not be right on the very top:
It wouldn't have to be a long way down
To have some head of water from above,
And a good distance down might not be noticed
By anyone who'd come a long way up...”
Now, we're getting somewhere. Maybe it's not on the tippy top and it's just a problem of observation. Kind of. After all, neither of these guys has actually seen the spring. That's not going to keep them from talking about it, though. The farmer begins this exchange:
“…One time I asked a fellow climbing it
To look and tell me later how it was."
"What did he say?"
"He said there was a lake
Somewhere in Ireland on a mountain top."
"But a lake's different. What about the spring?"
"He never got up high enough to see...”
Is this poetry? Or just crazy talk? The farmer continues
“...But what would interest you about the brook,
It's always cold in summer, warm in winter.
One of the great sights going is to see
It steam in winter like an ox's breath…”
This is from a man who’s never climbed the mountain and, so far as he’s willing to admit, can see no reason he ever would. The traveler questions the farmer on this last point:
"...Warm in December, cold in June, you say?"
"I don't suppose the water's changed at all.
You and I know enough to know it's warm
Compared with cold, and cold compared with warm.
But all the fun's in how you say a thing..."
Indeed, it is. What is a poem, after all, but the fun—or the pain, or the love—in how you say a thing?
And I can’t say that this is one of my favorite poems—it’s a little talky, in that way Frost sometimes gets, as though he were just a bystander at this roadside chat and he can’t help it if the subject isn’t all that interesting. Of course it trips along well enough and the voices ring true, but the conversation starts and stops and in the end, where are you any different from where you started out? To borrow from another less literary but equally authentic New England icon, the folk comedy team Bert and I, this poem is a little like a sausage: “It looks good, it tastes good, but after you skin it, there ain’t much to it.”
But I bring it up because it’s got that idea in it, simple and sophisticated enough that it has stuck with me all these years, that the way things look depend a lot on where you’re standing and how you got there. And, now that I look, this idea is right there in the opening lines:
The mountain held the town as in a shadow
I saw so much before I slept there once:
I noticed that I missed stars in the west,
Where its black body cut into the sky.
Near me it seemed: I felt it like a wall
Behind which I was sheltered from a wind.
And yet between the town and it I found,
When I walked forth at dawn to see new things,
Were fields, a river, and beyond, more fields...
I guess you could say it’s a poem about pespective, or the uncertainty of observation—it’s not a thing you expect in a poem, like love or death or fear of god. And I call it “talky,” yet he did in a hundred lines what I’ve only poked at in twice that many, and half of them borrowed back from him (you do the math).
My father, who grew up in the time of Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, loved Frost because his poems were about things a person understood. You could not drive down the Barnstable-West Barnstable Road with him on a winter night, past the spot where the light in the window of the dump man’s shack twinkled through the trees, without him reciting, from memory, Stopping by Woods on A Snowy Evening. He could not conceive that this was, somehow, a poem about suicide. And yet, when I look at it, I can’t conceive that it isn’t.
So I take this as a warning. The Mountain is a poem about a mountain, to be sure, but also about things I probably don’t understand. I see my cat at the door, wanting to come in for the thousandth time, so, for the thousandth time he works his paws against the glass and seems to wonder what holds him back. He doesn’t understand the barrier but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing there to understand.
Look at how this poem ends. I’ve never liked it much because I never quite got it entirely and was left to imagine that someone, Frost or me, fell short somehow. The mountain’s name, the farmer tells us, is Hor. It looks truncated, unfinished—like a code word—and for a kid, the sound of it is like a swear, no matter how you spell it. Hor? Really?
The visitor is trying to keep the conversation going but it's played out:
"...You've lived here all your life?"
"Ever since Hor
Was no bigger than a----" What, I did not hear.
He drew the oxen toward him with light touches
Of his slim goad on nose and offside flank,
Gave them their marching orders and was moving.
Those last lines have always unsettled me. Why pull that word? What could it be? What was the secret? When would I know? I want to suspect that farmer of something dark—here’s this spot, high above it all, where water pours magically from the ground. It sounds like heaven but our farmer can’t see any reason to go there and, by the time he’s done talking around it, our visitor seems less than likely to try the climb.
It’s just a joke, my father would say, just a Yankee saying he’s had enough of the small talk. Mountains don’t grow—at least not in the time frame that a mortal man can begin to understand. But maybe the man is not a mortal and the mountain’s not a mountain. Half the fun’s in how you say a thing,isn't it?
Anyway, it’s worth a read, if I haven’t talked you out of it. It's only online at a couple places I could find and, strangely, they both have the same typo in them. Just a couple letters off—it won’t kill you. Hell, it won’t even slow you down. The Mountain