Written in 1963 during a stay at an old grist mill in the country in Rhode Island, after having decided to take a sabbatical to work on Dream Songs full time. He confessed to someone that the real world for him was fading away, and that his life and consciousness were consumed by the work. But here there is an engagement with the world—grist mill, waterfall, a trout he caught and ate for lunch. The waterfall takes on a symbolic role.
Each cat should seizing private waterfall,
or rent, as Henry do. Seizure is gall,
I guess. Yes;
we nothing own. But we are lying owned.
We don’t really own anything in the world, since it’s all temporary anyway, life is an extended dream. But within that stretch of dream, we have our owners—all the owners we pay rent to, each dollar a chunk of our lives monetized and cast away to buy some thing or privilege. We should all have a private waterfall of our own, but it’s also outrageous to take one and own it—“Seizure is gall”—and it’s just as outrageous to rent one. Tecumseh taught me this: “Sell a country!? Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Didn't the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?” Sure he did! But real estate developers came up with other ideas. You want to play in this waterfall? You buy the privilege. Heh heh heh... Tecumseh the great Shawnee fought that notion with all his considerable savvy, courage, guile, ferocity, wisdom, and desperation. He was overwhelmed. Land ownership is the way it goes around here now, and the best we have is to write snarky poems, and take the solace we can from public parks and reserves. That’s something anyway.
The father and the mill purveyed their falls:
grist, grist! Still, stamping on Fate,
he lauded his lady;
ladies. Waders were treble at his end
or ends. The fool danced in the waterfall
losing his footing, ready.
This poem is downright Thoreauvian! In the first line, “The Father of the Mill surveyed his falls.” The third stanza begins with the father and the mill purveying—making available for sale. But he’s a fool for it, losing his footing. Here’s Thoreau in Walden going on about the name of Flint’s Pond:
Flint's Pond! Such is the poverty of our nomenclature. What right had the unclean and stupid farmer, whose farm abutted on this sky water, whose shores he has ruthlessly laid bare, to give his name to it? Some skin-flint, who loved better the reflecting surface of a dollar, or a bright cent, in which he could see his own brazen face; who regarded even the wild ducks which settled in it as trespassers; his fingers grown into crooked and bony talons from the long habit of grasping harpy-like;—so it is not named for me. I go not there to see him nor to hear of him; who never saw it, who never bathed in it, who never loved it, who never protected it, who never spoke a good word for it, nor thanked God that He had made it. […] there was nothing to redeem it, forsooth, in his eyes—and would have drained and sold it for the mud at its bottom.
That Thoreau can get down when he wants to! Having seen the crass onslaughts of real estate myself, I agree with Thoreau and Tecumseh in my bones. The hottest circle of Hell is reserved for developers. So you say that during your life back on God’s green Earth you stood before a redwood forest, and your spinning eyeballs triggered calculations out of your fever-addled brain that determined x square feet of standing board timber worth y dollars per hectare? Excellent! Welcome to your just reward! You damned fool…
Consistently broke Berryman, on a half-pay sabbatical at the writing, was probably just pissed off that he couldn’t really afford the privilege of trout fishing beneath a private waterfall by a quaint and picturesque New England grist mill. But the poem transcends that pettiness if so, so okay. Tecumseh and Thoreau are still two of this poem’s guiding spirits. I’ve hooked up philosophically with both of them, but I don’t live in a world that tolerates too far beyond mere impotent philosophy their ideas or their ideals. Normally self-absorbed, internalized Henry cast an outward glimpse here and was the one who summoned their spirits, perhaps without even realizing what he was doing.