Sometimes you set a purpose and then the world repurposes it. This is known as the Robert Burns effect: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” Translation: Shift happens.
Jon Loomis’s poem “At the Lake House” is a great example of shift happening. Note how stanza one starts innocently enough with a description of sound coming over the lake. The common chainsaw (vs. loon).
And our poet is ready to write, too, ancient Chinese-style, about nature, but then comes the monkey mind, here known as stanza two, where thoughts of the poet’s late father interrupt uninvited:
At the Lake House
by Jon Loomis
Wind and the sound of wind—
across the bay a chainsaw revs
and stalls. I’ve come here to write,
but instead I’ve been thinking
about my father, who, in his last year,
after his surgery, told my mother
he wasn’t sorry—that he’d cried
when the other woman left him,
that his time with her
had made him happier than anything
he’d ever done. And my mother,
who cooked and cleaned for him
all those years, cared for him
after his heart attack, could not
understand why he liked the other
woman more than her,
but he did. And she told me
that after he died she never went
to visit his grave—not once.
You think you know them,
these creatures robed
in your parents’ skins. Well,
you don’t. Any more than you know
what the pines want from the wind,
if the lake’s content with this pale
smear of sunset, if the loon calls
for its mate, or for another.
Sure, Loomis could have cut to the quick and started with those thoughts of his dad, making stanza two the new stanza one, but I rather like the way the course he chose better reflects life.
Of course that quick jump off the rails isn’t the only shift the poem offers. The big one comes closer to the end, where shifts tend to congregate. In stanza seven, the narrator says of parents: “You think you know them, / these creatures robed / in your parents’ skins.”
Ah. The pay-off. The bigger, more abstract picture providing dramatic rabbit punch to the smaller, more concrete play of distraught mother insulted by overly-frank, dying father. We adult children do have a tendency to feel a bit superior, don’t we, to act like we have our parents’ number to the point where we can parody their set and dated ways?
But, no, Loomis says, bringing us full circle to the lake he started with in stanza one. We know them no more than we “know / what the pines want from the wind.”
Humble pie and the strange ways of the world never tasted so good, did it? We even get the common loon in the finale, mocking my opening joke about common chainsaws. (And how prescient is that, I ask you?)
The moral of this poem is the common saying (related to chainsaws and loons) that my father often intoned: “Never assume. When you do, it makes an ass- of -u- and -me.”
And that includes assumptions about your parents, thank you. Their secrets are deep, plentiful, and more common than you think. Maybe someday your monkey mind will turn up a few. Be ready. Have pen in hand.