Mark Strand, New Selected Poems (New York: Knopf, 2007): 86-95. PS 3569. T69A6 2007X Robarts Library
1He leaned forward over the paper
2and for a long time saw nothing.
3Then, slowly, the lake opened
4like a white eye
5and he was a child
6playing with his cousins,
7and there was a lawn
8and a row of trees
9that went to the water.
10It was a warm afternoon in August
11and there was a party
12about to begin.
13He leaned forward over the paper
14and he wrote:
15I waited with my cousins across the lake,
16watching the grown-ups walking on the far side
17along the bank shaded by elms. It was hot.
18The sky was clear. My cousins and I stood
19for hours among the heavy branches, watching
20out parents, and it seemed as if nothing would enter
21their lives to make them change, not even the man
22running over the lawn, waving a sheet
23of paper and shouting. They moved beyond the claims
24of weather, beyond whatever news there was,
25and did not see the dark begin to deepen
26in the trees and bushes, and rise in the folds
27of their own dresses and in the stiff white
28of their own shirts. Waves of laughter carried
29over the water where we, the children, were watching.
30It was a scene that was not ours. We were
31too far away, and soon we would leave.
32He leaned back.
33How could he know
34the scene was not his?
35The summer was with him,
36the voices had returned, and he saw the faces.
37The day had started before the party;
38it had rained in the morning
39and suddenly cleared in time.
40The hems of the dresses were wet.
41The men's shoes glistened.
42There was a cloud shaped like a hand
43which kept lowering.
44There was no way to know
45why there were times that afternoon
46the lawn seemed empty, or why even then
47the voices of the grown-ups lingered there.
48He took what he had written
49and put it aside.
50He sat down and began again:
51We all went down to the lake, over the lawn,
52walking, not saying a word. All the way
53from the house, along the shade cast by the elms.
54And the sun bore down, lifting the dampness, allowing
55the lake to shine like a clear plate surrounded
56by mist. We sat and stared at the water and then
57lay down on the grass and slept. The air turned colder.
58The wind shook the trees. We lay so long we imagined
59a hand brushing the fallen leaves from our faces.
60But it was not autumn, and some of us, the youngest,
61got up and went to the other side of the lake
62and stared at the men and women asleep; the men
63in stiff white shirts, the women in pale dresses.
64We watched all afternoon. And a man ran down
65from the house, shouting, waving a sheet of paper:
66And the sleepers rose as if nothing had happened,
67as if the night had not begun to move
68into the trees. We heard their laughter; then
69their sighs. They lay back down, and the dark came over
70the lawn and covered them. As far as we know
71they are still there, their arms crossed over their chests,
72their stiff clothing creased. We have never been back.
73He looked at what he had written.
74How far had he come?
75And why had it grown dark just then?
76And wasn't he alone when he watched the others
77lie down on the lawn?
78He stared out the window,
79hoping the people at the lake,
80the lake itself, would fade.
81He wanted to move beyond his past.
82He thought of the man
83running over the lawn who seemed familiar.
84He looked at what he had written
85and wondered how he had crossed the lake,
86and if his cousins went with him.
87Had someone called?
88Had someone waved goodbye?
89What he had written told him nothing.
90He put it away and began again:
91I waited under the trees in front of the house,
92thinking of nothing, watching the sunlight wash
93over the roof. I heard nothing, felt
94nothing, even when she appeared in a long
95yellow dress, pointed white shoes, her hair
96drawn back in a tight bun; even when
97she took my hand and led me along the row
98of tall tress toward the lake where the rest had gathered,
99the men in their starched shirts, the women in
100their summer dresses, the children watching the water.
101Even then, my life seemed far away
102as though it were waiting for me to discover it.
103She held my hand and led me toward the water.
104The hem of her dress was wet. She said nothing
105when she left me with my cousins and joined
106the others who stood together. I knew by the way
107they talked that something would happen, that some of us,
108the youngest, would go away the afternoon
109and never find their way back. As I walked through the woods
110to the other side of the lake, their voiced faded
111in the breaking of leaves and branches underfoot.
112Though I walked away, I had no sense of going.
113I sat and watched the scene across the lake,
114I watched and did nothing. Small waves of laughter
115carried over the water and then died down.
116I was not moved. Even when the man
117ran across the lawn, shouting, I did nothing.
118It seemed as if the wind drew the dark
119from the trees onto the grass. The adults stood
120together. They would never leave that shore.
121I watched the one in the yellow dress whose name
122I had begun to forget and who waited with
123the others and who stared at where I was
124but could not see me. Already the full moon
125had risen and dropped its white ashes on the lake.
126And the woman and the others slowly began
127to take off their clothes, and the mild rushes of wind
128rinsed their skin, their pale bodies shone
129briefly among the shadows until they lay
130on the damp grass. And the children had all gone.
131And that was all. And even then I felt
132the woman in the yellow dress again,
133and that the scene by the lake would not be repeated,
134and that that summer would be a place too distant
135for me to find myself in again.
136Although I have tried to return, I have always
137ended here, where I am now. The lake
138still exists, and so does the lawn, though the people
139who slept there that afternoon have not been seen since.
140It bothered him,
141as if too much had been said.
142He would have preferred
143the lake without a story,
144or no story and no lake.
145His pursuit was a form of evasion:
146the more he tried to uncover
147the more there was to conceal
148the less he understood.
149If he kept it up,
150he would lose everything.
151he knew this
152and remembered what he could--
153always at a distance,
154on the other side of the lake,
155or across the lawn,
156always vanishing, always there.
157And the woman and the others would save him
158and he would save them.
159He put his hand on the paper.
160He would write a letter for the man
161running across the lawn.
162He would say what he knew.
163He rested his head in his arms and tried to sleep.
164He knew that night had once come,
165that something had once happened.
166He wanted to know but not to know.
167Maybe something had happened
168one afternoon in August.
169Maybe he was there or waiting to be there,
170waiting to come running across the lawn
171to a lake where people were staring
172across the water.
173He would come running
174and be too late.
175The people there would be asleep.
176Their children would be watching them.
177He would bring what he had written
178and then he would lie down with the others.
179He would be the man
180he had become, the man
181who would run across the lawn.
182He began again:
183I sat in the house that looked down on the lake,
184the lawn, the woods beside the lawn. I heard
185the children near the shore, their voices lifted
186where no memory of the place would reach.
187I watched the women, the men in white, strolling
188in the August heat. I shut the window
189and saw when in the quiet glass, passing
190each time farther away. The trees began
191to darken and the children left. I saw
192the distant water fade in the gray shade
193of grass and underbrush across the lake.
194I thought I saw the children sitting, watching
195their parents in a slow parade along
196the shore. The shapes among the trees kept changing.
197It may have been one child I saw, its face.
198It may have been my own face looking back.
199I felt myself descend into the future.
200I saw beyond the lawn, beyond the lake,
201beyond waiting dark, the end of summer,
202the end of autumn, the icy air, the silence,
203and then, again, the windowpane. I was
204where I was, where I would be, and where I am.
205I watched the men and women as the white
206eye of the lake began to close and deepen
207into blue, then into black. It was too late
208for them to call the children. They lay on the grass
209and the wind blew and shook the first leaves loose.
210I wanted to tell them something. I saw myself
211running, waving a sheet of paper, shouting,
212telling them all that I had something to give them,
213but when I got there, they were gone.
214He looked up from the paper
215and saw himself in the window.
216It was an August night
217and he was tired,
218and the trees swayed
219and the wind shook the window.
220It was late.
221It did not matter.
222He would never catch up
223with his past. His life
224was slowing down.
225It was going.
226He could feel it,
227could hear it in his speech.
228It sounded like nothing,
229yet he would pass it on.
230And his children would live in it
231and they would pass it on,
232and it would always sound
233like hope dying, like space opening,
234like a lawn, or a lake,
235or an afternoon.
236And pain could not give it
237the meaning it lacked;
238there was no pain,
240Why had he begun in the first place?
241He was tired,
242and gave himself up to sleep,
243and slept where he was,
244and slept without dreaming,
245so that when he woke
246it seemed as if nothing had happened.
247The lake opened like a white eye,
248the elms rose over the lawn,
249the sun over the elms.
250It was as he remembered it--
251the mist, the dark, the heat,
252the woods on the other side.
253He sat for a long time
254and saw that they had come
255and were on the lawn.
256They were waiting for him,
257staring up at the window.
258The wind blew their hair
259and they made no motion.
260He was afraid to follow them.
261He knew what would happen.
262He knew the children would wander off,
263and he would lie down with their parents.
264And he was afraid.
265When they turned
266and walked down to the lake
267into the shade cast by the elms
268the children did wander off.
269He saw them in the distance,
270across the lake, and wondered if one
271would come back someday
272and be where he was now.
273He saw the adults on the lawn,
274beginning to lie down.
275And he wanted to warn them,
276to tell them what he knew.
277He ran from the house down to the lake,
278knowing that he could be late,
279that he would be left
281When he got there,
282they were gone,
283and he was alone in the dark,
284unable to speak.
285He stood still.
286He felt the world recede
287into the clouds,
288into the shelves of air.
289he closed his eyes.
290he thought of the lake,
291the closets of weeds.
292he thought of the moth asleep
293in the dust of its wings,
294of the bat hanging in the caves of trees.
295He felt himself at that moment to be
296more than his need to survive,
297more than his loses,
298because he was less than anything.
299He swayed back and forth.
300The silence was in him
301and it rose like joy,
302like the beginning.
303When he opened his eyes,
304the silence had spread, the sheets
305of darkness seemed endless,
306the sheets he held in his hand.
307He turned and walked to the house.
308he went to the room
309that looked out on the lawn.
310He sat and began to write:
311 The Untelling
312 To the Woman in the Yellow Dress
Publication Start Year
The Story of Our Lives, 1973
RPO poem Editors