I’ve been reading Janet Frame’s posthumous collection The Goose Bath Poems slowly – more slowly than usual. Partly this is due to a busy month of other reading, but also it is the density of her work. Her sentences are complex and her ideas are often obscure to me. And yet, I keep reading. Something about them touches me.
by Janet Frame
The boy in the basement steers a spacecraft into heaven.
What is heaven? The flowering of the summer squash
in his small garden; a rack of carpenter’s tools; two gerbils;
a walk on the sand
hand in hand with his father
who conjures the great white whale out of print
into the ocean within a few yards of the house.
It is his mother gently disentangling his unhurt fingers
from Charlotte’s web;
the morning ride on the punt to Chappaquiddick;
nurses and children; the private beach;
the best; white;
white whale and cloud.
Two or three feet taller where
adults turn their heads to say No,
it never happened, look who’s winning the game,
which ghost passed like a storm down the highway,
heaven though nearer is further away.
In this poem, we see a small boy playing with model spaceships and walking on the beach with his father. He has been born into a life of privilege: His parents live on Martha’s Vineyard (or summer there, at least), they walk upon a private beach, the boy has a private nurse. And his father has been reading Moby Dick – the story of the white whale, obsession, tragedy.
And I cannot help but wonder… Is that what the boy’s life will become? A tragedy? He will go to the best schools and be given every opportunity, but he will squander his life on a foolish obsession? As Frame says, “heaven though nearer is further away.” Is the bar set too high already for this small boy? Will he ever live up to the expectations of his family, his social class?
The boy has been given “the best; white;” and yet, I feel sorry for him. We are all on the hamster wheel. Some of us possess a few more pieces of gold than others, but we each make our own happiness or our own hell.
Obviously, when we read poetry, we filter the meaning through our own prejudices, histories and beliefs. We read a poem in our 30s or 40s and it has different meaning for us than it did in our 20s. (This is a good argument, by the way, for attending a performance of Hamlet in each decade of our lives – to experience how the meaning evolves.)
I’ve been struggling with my own quest for happiness lately. Perhaps that is why this poem resonates for me. Janet Frame struggled most of her life to make peace with her illness. I hope she found some sense of satisfaction, at least, from the art that was its byproduct.
Have a good holiday weekend.