Listen to James Longenbach read this poem.
He wouldn’t have left much later than 3:00,
Not with the sun disappearing behind the mountain,
December, shortest days of the year.
At its deepest, the lake is twenty feet.
In summer he rowed, in winter he walked.
That day he started across snow-covered ice on his skis.
If the cracking had started immediately
He would have turned back.
Whether he saw the open water north of the island—who knows?
By 5:25, when finally he slipped from the edge,
A hundred of us were watching from shore.
Immediately the gossip began.
Why did a man who’d lived on the island all his life,
Who knew enough to unfasten his skis,
Cross ice no more than forty-eight hours old?
If the wind hadn’t kicked up,
If anybody could have thrown that far,
If there’d been no ice, if there’d been enough—
All-seeing stars that never sink beneath the northern pole,
Whose orbits embrace heaven, circling the earth,
My friend the poet lived on an island.
He built a cabin, planted beans. More than anything
He liked to visit other islands.
When the ice collapsed he drowned.
Fire shall burn, earth grow,
Water shall wear a covering,
Locking up the sprouts of the earth.