Elegy On Gordon Barber by Gene Derwood

Thanks to my time in the mountains I am discovering some things.

I am Peter Gordon Donald, born Stephen James Roberts.

I am named after Gordon Barber, my Father's close friend who drowned at my Grandmother's Camp, Panther Cove, on Upper Saranac Lake, at the age of 18.

Here is a famous poem I found today about Gordon and what happened. My Father still refuses to speak about the tragedy. As a boy this is how I came to be a reporter, by reconstructing the story through news accounts and speaking with family members. Obviously this is a big part of my book Low Expectations.

Elegy on Gordon Barber, a poem by Gene Derwood


On Gordon Barber, Lamentably
Drowned in his Eighteenth Year

When in the mirror of a permanent tear
Over the iris of your mother’s eye
I beheld the dark tremor of your face, austere
With space of death, spun too benign for youth,
Icicle of the past to pierce her living sigh –
I saw you wish the last kiss of mother’s mouth,
Who took the salted waters rather in the suck
Of seas, sighing yourself to fill and drench
With water the plum-rich glory of your breast
Where beat the heart escaping from war’s luck.

Gordon, I mourn your wrist, your running foot,
Your curious brows, your thigh, your unborn daughters,
Yet mourn more deep the drought-caught war dry boy
Who goes, a killer, to join you in your sleep
And envy you what made you blench
Taking your purple back to drought-less waters.
What choke of terror filled you in the wet
What fierce surprise caught you when play turned fate
And all the rains you loved became your net,
Formlessly yielding, yet stronger than your breath?
Then did you dream of mother or hopes hatched
When the cold cramp held you from nape to foot
And time dissolved, promise dissolved, in Death?
Did you cry ‘cruel’ to all the hands that stretched
Not near, but played afar, when you sank down
Your sponge of lungs hurt to the quick
Till you had left the quick to join the dead,
Whom now, your mother mourns grief-sick.
You were too young to drown.

Never will you take bride to happy bed,
Who lay awash in water yet no laving
Needed, so pure so young for sudden leaving.

Gone, gone is Gordon, tall and brilliant lad
Whose mind was science. Now hollow his skull
A noble sculpture, is but sunken bone,
His cells from water come by water laid
Grave-deep, to water gone.
Lost, lost the hope he had
Washed to a cipher his splendour and his skill.

But Gordon’s gone, it’s other boys who live afraid.

Two years, and lads have grown to hold a gun.
In dust must splendid lads go down and choke,
Red dry their hands and dry their one day’s sun
From which they earthward fall to fiery tomb
Bomb-weighted, from bloodying children’s hair.

Never a boy but takes as cross Cain’s crime
And goes to death by making death, to pass
Death’s gate distorted with the dried brown grime –
Better the watery death than death by air
Or death by sand
Where fall hard fish of fear
Loud in unwetted dust.

Spun on a lucky wave, O early boy!
Now ocean’s fish you are
As heretofore.
Perhaps you had sweet mercy’s tenderness
To win so soon largesse of choice
That you, by grace, went gayly to the wave
And all our mourning should be to rejoice.

Gene Derwood (1909-1954)


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