The season’s freeze has locked the waterfall,
its wavering fluid, into a cold permanence.
Last arcs of free spray, crystallized
in mid-air, are scattered among the stones.
Here is a preserved droplet, a Victorian stopper,
which will not melt for months. Water is held,
as these lines hold under the bite of words.
The wind is the one sound, hissing
into the crevice over the quiet ice.
For seventy hardening seasons I’ve watched
the stopping of waterfalls. Some of the time
I knew and perhaps understood how water
changed in winter, what happened to molecules,
how the structures of elements could petrify
in a night from bounding liquid to
an obdurate smoothness. Not any longer.
All that’s confusing now. I am content
to watch the world turn cold with its old grace.
Soon younger men will come, active, dressed
against ice, with crampons and pitons, coils
of nylon rope, looking up quite differently
from the river bed. They’ll wear their red
windproofs on the pallor of the ice,
search for fingerhold and toehold, secure
their spiked boots, begin to climb.
It’s grim work. At first one sees them progress
with a quick elegance, straight up, few overhangs.
But soon they must steady, take the ice axe
from its holster, with brisk hacks
of the blade cut steps out of the sliding
fall, blocks of cold spoil dropping
to the valley floor, skittering down.
They’ll pull themselves up to the line
of sky above them, the canyon’s edge.
What then? No axe will chop footholds
in that thin air. They won’t fly, I can tell them.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 5, on page 39
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