Dec 062013

William Olsen

William Olsen is a dear friend and former colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a publisher, editor and poet, a major force, diffident and yet such a presence. In this new poem, he pens what he calls “among other things, some sort of response to and loving argument with a favorite poem, Coleridge’s “Frost At Midnight.” The Coleridge poem situates itself as an address to the poet’s son, sleeping in his cradle. It’s night; it’s cold. Frost outside. Everyone is asleep except the poet. The world is so still the stillness seems to flutter with presence that disturbs meditation, the presence of the Stranger, which is a kind of Coleridgean encapsulation of a neo-Platonic deity behind or beneath the phenomena of existence. The poet bemoans his own childhood (much to complain of there) cooped up in the city grime and tells his son he’s lucky; he’ll grow up in sight of “…lakes and shores / And mountain crags…” that are the “eternal language” of God.

Olsen’s poem plays with Coleridge’s poem starting with a brilliantly suspended first sentence that takes seven stanzas to come to an end as the poet takes us deeper and deeper beneath the surface of things, past regret and mother’s tears and “funereal vacuities” (more than a hint of humor here) to something that, in the end, is not Coleridge’s Stranger nor his God, rather something the poet cannot name or even choose to name. Note the line “wherever it is leaves must fall” and its echo farther down “The leaf falls to earth…”

The leaf falls to earth and keeps
falling and cups the frost,
then decomposes beyond the deeps,
to teach us how to be lost.

And the word “teach” here echoes the Coleridge poem that also is about teaching: God “Great universal Teacher!” But Olsen is much less credulous or sanguine than Coleridge. He cannot say why things are nor who speaks through the delicate traceries of frost and the decomposing leaves that teach.


Far down below black, lowest regret,
deeper than death, and deeper yet,
down where my mother weeps to me
to leave tomorrow’s sorrows be,

far below sadness and tenderness,
where more is less and less is less,
below the sky or the sky-blue lake
brimming over like the hull of a shipwreck,

below where the crows crow and the cows sleep,
below the bluestem and the apples the cows crap,
below the prettiest sunset,
below even the bluest white-

bright-last-sunlight upon even bluer waves
gleaming their overly-precious granite graves,
below funereal vacuities,
extravagant superfluities,

far below the lovers’ quarrels,
or their story’s broody morals,
in its own good timely time, time has gone back home.
Time and time again, homeless time—

all the time in the world, homeless,
homeless space of universe,
all the time that time might pass
inside a shiny timeless hearse——

far down below idling hopes,
below the learned astronomer’s telescopes,
wherever it is leaves must fall
is neither my life nor my choice to call.


Upon a few gnarled stunted vines
fall’s first frost fairly shines,
mist rising up from fields while new minted frost
mummifies a shingle-sided house.

Here is a glittery homelessness
better acquainted with earth than with us.
All we are is less substantial,
all our fears, less substantial.

Dawn is ready and the heart is able.
Fear could not be less substantial.
I’ve had it with odes to dejection,
which is never more than the fear of rejection.


Here’s what frost isn’t—insubstantial,
querulous, of itself too full,
a mood of ferried buried
waves and the threadbare eroded

dunes we sightseers climb up and down to ruin.
Torment never spread itself this thin.
Incandescent, heartless, so like tin—
gull-gray gulls shriek atonal tunes.

The light of frost is the understudy of day,
this lake, once, as hard as rock:
icebergs—like ships, they broke
to floes which, farther down on their luck

drowned, to nothing—invisibly.
This frost is anything but free.
It looks like the moonlight got good and lost.
It got busted, sprung, and lost.

Frost has a cryological conscience:
the afterworld is cold chance.
Lunatical . . . white as a grin.
It shines unapproachably, like sunlight shines on tin,

whitening fields between cars and houses.
Plow-slashed furrows freeze
over smooth to its silver sky.
Forgive this intricate analysis

but it looks so stunned and incredulous.
It is spotty, like a roof of a vacant crystal palace,
Instantaneously tenuous,
it scribes the window glass.


It is so distinct from rain.
It shuns asphalt as too human.
The lustrous is
incipient in us.

Its deposition of glory
is inexplicably ordinary.
What a tenacious
underside of heaven it is—

it won’t be pushed around or salted or plowed like snow.
It won’t be tracked on and no weatherman will see it lift.
It is profligate thrift.
Its past is vaporous.

Beauty never spread itself so thin—
incandescent, the heartless night
turned inside out—
pasture field light.


The great lovers once frantic to touch
in darkness no dawn or frost can reach—
my mother gone in the blink of an eye,
my father going by and by,

all mothers, all sisters, all fathers, all sons,
all brothers and keepers, everyone’s
truest, best, lost influences,
nameless lovingkindnesses. . . .

it is all and none of this.


It seems irretrievably early.
Time is awake, only barely,
infinitesimal hates,
infinitesimal fights.

Tight, fibrous and delicate,
around the fine white plow bared roots,
its extremely minute white
threads appeared overnight.

It prompts us and then reproves us.
Its intricate paralysis
crystallizes . . . miraculous.
Preposterous.  Analogous.


The leaf falls to earth and keeps
falling and cups the frost,
then decomposes beyond the deeps,
to teach us how to be lost.


So night may be said to be over,
over, and over at no real cost,
each dawn the stars take cover.
Stop fretting about the frost.

Frost clung to the shadow places
and as always already was there
before anyone could take a step.
In the sky, stars stayed on

while you were asleep.


While you were asleep
everyone was asleep;
if we sleep, if we die,
stars hang in the sky.

Between our houses
is its heartlessness,
but whatever grass
is, the frost blesses

whoever sees this,
whoever would mean
that frost be seen
not heard in this:

now fields steam and
its steam mists to sky.
Under us is only sand
and who can say why,

or whose voice this is.

—William Olsen

William Olsen is author of five collections of poetry, including Sand Theory (Northwestern, 2011). He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA and Breadloaf.  He is co-editor of Planet on the Table: Writers on the Reading Life (Sarabande) and, most recently, Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry (New Issues). He teaches in the MFA and Ph.D program at Western Michigan University and edits New Issues Press. His home is in Kalamazoo.

  3 Responses to “Frost at Dawn: Poem — William Olsen”

  1. Dear Bill,

    Your frost poem just an effin tour de force: formally, intellectually, emotionally, even geographically. Makes me miss you (and Nancy, to whom greetings too).

    Bravo, my friend!



  2. Absolutely stunning work, Bill. I will go back to this poem again and again, deeper into its sweetly dissected take on impermanence, belief, assumption, and perception. Your work never ceases to pull me back to center; it reminds me why poetry is vital, and essential.

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