Our Seeming Inability

Reading Robert Frost’s poem, “Out, Out–,” at the age of 17 left a deep impression on me. [1]

The poem describes a boy–yea, a man-child–using a buzz saw to cut wood for the family. When he’s called to supper, the saw inexplicably leaps “out at the boy’s hand” or seems to do so. His hand is completely severed: he holds it up “[h]alf in appeal, but half as if to keep / The life from spilling.” Soon the doctor comes, and not long thereafter the boy bleeds to death.

The last sentence, cutting as it does across two lines, is the one I have remembered all these years: “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

The sentence sounds callous yet perhaps it is better understood as a reflection on our seeming inability to face the incomprehensibility of death. The dead are dead after all, the living (for as long as we do) remain living, so all we can do, when confronted with the futility of life, is turn back to our affairs.

Seeming inability. Could we not instead imagine and feel this: “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, fell to the ground and wept”?

The existential opening–for all of us–is Right Here.


[1] You might, or might not, know that Frost’s title is an allusion to a famous soliloquy from Macbeth. See the pull quote off to the right.