“The Pond” by Sylvia D. Hamilton
Working or studying or simply ‘withdrawing’ — whatever you’ve been doing over the last few years — has probably forced you into confrontation with your routines, or habits. Sure, for some, it seems the pandemic experience has barely registered: life, work, went on as normal, even as over six million people died. But for many, it’s mounted a stiff challenge to whatever myths were holding us together. It’s sundered relationships, deepened addictions, exacerbated depressions and obsessions; or perhaps it’s been a stiff slap, an awakening — through loss, or through illness, or simply through close observation, the career or person or passion we thought we wanted turned out to be holding us back. For these people, there is no going back to normal. There was a time before COVID and a time after.
The point is: any abrupt or profound change to business as usual — our sleepwalking mode, our cruise control settings — can throw our lives into clearer, though often uncomfortable, focus. In the time before, what did we take for granted? What bad habits were we reinforcing? What delusions were we furrowing into the earth, or rubbing smooth with friction? In our conceptions of the before and after, what are we clinging to, even two years into the new world? What spectres of our old lives are we hoping, miraculously, might return from the dead?
I came to Sylvia D. Hamilton’s “The Pond” in late 2020 while, along with many people, I was struggling with a bout of cabin fever, career turmoil, the dislocation of a move and a social and family life on hiatus. Feeling lucky to be who and where I was through such collective and imbalanced suffering. Feeling the generalized anxiety born of watching our governments and institutions flail against a virus that endangered their more literal interpretation of ‘business as usual.’ And feeling despair and disappointment in others, who, when pressed for minor sacrifice, revealed a deeper, normally concealed selfishness. I thought then the poem had something to say: that it wrestled with these questions quietly, directly, but without any lavish spectacle, without any risky attempt to be or to address the zeitgeist. Today, as the Internet churns in goblin mode, or shares a meme about nuclear war, irreversible climate change and fascist insurrections, I feel again the anxiety of 2020 simply shifting, turning over in sleep, forming new nightmares — but still rooted in the questions and statements made here in these 12 short lines.
Twelve lines in three neat quatrains. The first offers a homely amble through nine words — short words, too, each of four letters or fewer. It’s a stroll through four stresses: three natural-sounding iambs and an anapest. We lope through an easygoing slant rhyme between “walk” (ȯ) and “pond” (ä). And by the voiceable putter of “path to the pond,” we may be feeling casually ambulatory. “Each day I walk the path to the pond” could be its own sentence, its own complete statement, but it’s merely a dependent set-up: it’s a link to another statement that, in its placement below, forms the first argument of the poem.
On line two, the sentence continues with “it should be different, it’s not”, furthering the mild iambic pulse and again ending on an anapest, but this time with a more stumble-and-halt quality to it — at least a more jarring feeling than the rolling beat of “path to the pond” from the line above. Notably, the phrase “it’s not” is also grafted onto the previous sentence via comma splice. Splices are funny to me. I remember them as a ‘device’ most vividly when reading Margaret Atwood for the first time: Surfacing and The Handmaid’s Tale and her short stories. I didn’t recognize them as errors, merely evocations of the narrators’ inertia, their enervated states. I wouldn’t dare use one today but only because years of grammar lectures have blistered them from my brain.
‘Correcting’ the splice in Hamilton’s poem with a full stop, a capital letter, a semicolon, an em dash, or a conjunction — these tactics would elevate “it’s not” to standalone status, to its own thought or idea, and to a far more dramatic register (two-word sentences tend to carry gravitas). To me, the splice gives the line a muttering, understated quality. More importantly, it tells us that “it should be different, it’s not” is the full idea: the expectation and the reality are both part of the same unit. Simplicity stripped to barebones fact, separated by the half-breath of a comma.
“Everything/ has changed, nothing has changed” maintains the sense, via dressed-down diction and the recurring splice, that this contradictory sounding idea — all is change, nothing changes — is itself a singular concept. Movement within stillness, light within dark, sound within silence. It shares equal validity as the statement, “it should be different, it’s not.” But what is being said here? Let’s paraphrase. Walking the path to the pond every day, the narrator expects a different visual or sensory experience. There should be change, they say: maybe a thaw, a new leaf, a different bird, we think. And yet the speaker is confronted with sameness, day after day: the scene is fixed, hideously. Then a breath later, the speaker corrects this assumption — in fact, every little thing, all things great and small, have indeed changed. So, the first assumption, the expectation of change, was indeed correct: there should be difference! This, too, is rewritten. No — “nothing has changed” after all — voiced if to say, what was I thinking?
What comes next is a fragment: “A red hockey/ net side-lined, a leftover from winter shinnies.” My pace slows, naturally, with “net side-lined,” which could be read as three stressed syllables: the metal poles fixed, or frozen, to earth. We speed up to walking iambs with the rest of the line, learning the net is a “leftover”, a part of the past, contributing to the scene’s stasis. There’s a thin, pinched quality to the line, via the accumulation of long and short ‘i’s: a frigidity. Looking only at this first stanza, our visual cues are scant: we see a “path to the pond” and this leftover hockey net, no doubt blazing red among what I’m already visualizing as a drab, changing-unchanging vista. I imagine, maybe as you do, a solitary figure standing in a cold place, eyes drawn to a flash of colour. I instinctively recall a famous red wheelbarrow and push these two images into conversation. The net might be doing the same thing. There’s nothing else to look at.
On to stanza two:
Yesterday a thin ice cover, today open dark water.
Bare trees cast grim reflections. Dead weeds choking,
poking up, gasping for air at the muddy shoreline.
We’re past winter because the net is a “leftover from winter shinnies.” But the world is still cool. It seems we are in early spring, when ice forms and thaws and the temperature seesaws, long before life might push through the earth. These three lines are a textbook case of “how to create mood through connotation and metaphor”: the ice is “thin,” the water “dark.” The trees are “bare” and cast “grim” reflections. The “dead” weeds are “choking” and “poking” and “gasping” in the mud. Thin, dark, bare, grim, dead, choking, poking, gasping: the atmosphere is despair and death. We’re also stabbed, rhythmically, through the pile-up of stresses, which I’ve marked by italics here, through “Dead weeds choking,/ poking up, gasping for air”. As a reader, I feel the emotional context is unavoidable, even obvious, with this kind of diction, and maybe to the poem’s detriment. This is a particularly unpleasant time of year: a transitional state between living and dying, an interminable waiting room, and it is certainly hostile to us.
The stanza ends with a variation on the speaker’s problem: “Everything has changed, the world has changed.” Here, the splice joins an earlier observation, “Everything has changed,” with a doubling-down, rather than reversal: it’s not just “everything” but the very “world” under review. This line has a somber heft — I read it as trochaic pentameter with a catalectic ending. This shift signals to me, in a manner far more subtle than the overt language used above, that we’re not just talking about the everyday, witnessed environment but bigger things — ideas, events, catastrophes. Out of time and context, this is just a hint: a clue that there’s a deeper concern, maybe in the speaker’s life, maybe in a cultural or global context, that’s really driving this sense of confusion, these dashed expectations, which are triggered by the walk to the pond. Given all the grim, thin, poking language, it might seem more appropriate for the speaker to also observe that “nothing has changed” — glumly, desolately, as if they were sick to death of the cold and longing for spring — but there’s a subtle thwarting of those expectations. Sameness breeds sadness but even consistency cannot be relied upon: difference is a cause for melancholy just as much as routine.
By the third stanza, this twisty pattern of splice-fused argument and counterargument returns to that first observation. “It should look different,” the speaker says, not be different: we’re focused again on the at-hand, the sensory. This is followed by what feels both like another headshake, a muttering tsk, and a plea tinged with pain: “it doesn’t, it doesn’t.” You can feel the writerly urge to leap from this begging, entreating quality of “it doesn’t, it doesn’t” to the uber-poetic next line, “Oh where are the birds — have they no songs?” As with the second stanza, I feel as though this line walks a tightrope between what it wants to do and a teetering over the edge into melodrama: the use of “Oh,” the trope of addressing birds, the archaic construction of “have they no songs?” — and it’s all packed into one short line! I suppose it’s all in your mood, how ironic your eyebrow. I think, personally, that a tiny omission saves it from the overemotional — that leaving off the customary comma after “Oh” (as in, “Oh,”) adds a hard-to-explain understatement, turning what could be something lachrymose into what may be read as real, affecting.
Turning to nature, or Nature, offers little comfort. In fact, it offers emptiness, unknowing. The birds are gone, and “Even the squirrels are in hiding, what do they know?” I particularly enjoy the now familiar comma splice and feel that it might have served as a better device than the em dash above — it might further disentangle the “Oh where are the birds” line from a maudlin reading. I like, too, that the question here — “what do they know?” — has the dual capacity to be read as genuine, and thus lofty and philosophical (oh, what doth the dumb beast know?) and as chiding, even funny (“what do they know, anyway? Who do these squirrels they think they are!?”). It’s good to undercut the potential for ultra-seriousness with a sense of humour, at least in a poem like this.
Then we’re back to the exact first line, and back to the ambling iambs. We remember that these observations come from habit, from routine. We frame the poem with a walk, an unspoken stroll back, and the daily return. The process is cyclical, like the process of seasons, but unlike the bloom and the husk of the natural world it is fraught with anxiety and suffering, ludicrous expectations — the human stink of thought. Literally, the walk to the pond is happening where: in nature, outside, on a page, on this website? None of the above. The walk to the pond is happening in your mind. So is everything that follows: the desire for change, and yet the sense that things are unchanging; the desire for stability and the cruel certainty of change. This stuff doesn’t occur ‘out there.’ It’s our invention, our casting upon form. And it brings about heaven or purgatory or hell or maybe the world of the squirrels and birds, depending on your kink: if your knee is hurting today, or someone was nice to you; if you got enough likes or you don’t feel quite so unloved.
As human beings, we invariably believe in several falsehoods about this shitty life we have going on. We believe that we are separate, self-contained, semi-permanent, individual actors with consistent ‘essences’ which we like to call ‘souls’ or ‘selves.’ We then believe that things can stay the same, that things do not die — that good times will last, yo! Why else are we shocked by both major disturbances (death, illness, divorce, war, pandemics) and tiny inconveniences (Someone said something mean to us! We’re given an extra task at work! Our throats are kinda sore today!)? We know rationally that things change, they age and decay, and new things arise, but practically speaking we are deeply wounded by the passage of time and nothing can prepare us for that grief. Third, we think that our topsy-turvy emotional reactions, our intense deliberations and philosophical arguments, our constant self-assessing, debating and calculating minds are actually clever tools to cover up these two previous falsehoods. Sadly, though, every last thought or feeling we use to distract ourselves from this lacking a self or ignoring change — all our strategies to ‘cheat reality’ and become happy, finally! — are themselves a cause of anxiety and suffering, both minor and catastrophic. Put another way: all emotions are pain, or will be, when they go.
Many readers will understand that I am summarizing the ‘Three Marks of Existence’ or ‘Three Seals of Existence’ (or ‘phenomena’) that are essential to Shakyamuni Buddha’s awakening, to his clear understanding of the plight of living things, and to his solution. Annica (impermanence), dukkha (suffering, or unsatisfactoriness) and annata (non-self) were the original three; Mahayana scholars added a fourth, sunyakhara (emptiness), which composed the four characteristics of the truth of suffering. These are the brass tacks. All experience, all existence — including feeling and thought — are marked by these characteristics.
Notably, Thich Nhat Hanh drew readers’ attention to the Buddha’s alternative formulation, which states that the extinguishing or quenching of ideas — nirvana — marked all existence, not dukkha. That an intrinsic quality of ‘being’ we can access is the non-identification or grasping of impermanent, empty concepts, free of dualism or duality, which is a state of bliss. This is important to remember for those who would rather masochistically or pessimistically cling to suffering. It is another dharma gate, or method of teaching, by which the Buddha was able to lead people out of delusion. It’s also vital to remember that our dissatisfaction or dukkha arises as a result in not properly grasping annica or annata. Suffering doesn’t just happen. It is predicated on ignorance; in thinking the world is as it is not.
Returning to “The Pond,” we see a very human process of suffering. “It should be different, it’s not” and “It should look different, it doesn’t, it doesn’t” are absurd statements: why should things be, or look, differently? Should is pain. Should summons thin, open, dark, bare, grim, choking, poking, gasping qualities in the wild: should means inanimate, neutral forms cause even more hurt. Questions such as “where are the birds” and “what do [the squirrels] know?” assume there’s something they can tell us, to mollify us, and of course their silence is received as pain yet again. When things switch out, and when change is recognized as undeniable — “Everything has changed, the world has changed” — the speaker pivots to the flipside of dukkha’s coin: the obscene grief of annica, or impermanence, brought home to hold in the waste land of spring.
This is a pandemic poem. This poem sees you spying your neighbour’s crumbling pottery on their balcony, or the thieving crows watching like sentinels on ugly black electrical wires. It sees you stalking your muddy backyard, or your trash-strewn alleyway, or the glossy aisles of the unsafe grocery store you’re forced to endure with grace as self-described victims unmask and shower you with their afflictions. It sees you pacing a hateful room, or lying awake in bed during a chorus of honks, or opening another bottle of vodka, alone, waiting for a spring that never seems to come, despite the sunny commercials for spearmint gum and erectile dysfunctions that promise a glorious summer of sex, of human commerce, of a ‘return’ of the past. The past is finished, and it carves you up: the dead are nowhere on earth but inside your mind. What can you do? What can you do?
Hamilton writes, “Each day I walk the path to the pond” even after the disappointments portioned across these quatrains. Is that the answer? Is the answer to your problem to stand up and walk, to move, to engage with it again? To not give up? Is that heroism or stupidity? Is that cowardice or habit? What’s really there in the mud and the cold and the dark waters, the missing birds? Is being pain, or is being indescribably blissful, beyond words — are words in fact the reason we cannot see it? I’m grateful to Hamilton and to “The Pond” for raising these questions because it makes me feel less alone, both with the root cause and the possibilities of our escape.