Tent Caterpillars

By Susan Mitchell b. 1944 Susan Mitchell

for Nathaniel, 1900—1968

All afternoon you worked at cutting them down.
Branch after branch tossed
into the heap. You had your ceremony. Old pants. The pipe.   
The pipe rested in the cleft of the tree.
When the pile got big enough, you threw the kerosene.

Now the woods are clouded again. You forgot   
the world could be this messy.
Air thickens into leaves, the leaves into worms.   
Behind the barn, overnight, it seems,
tents have spread out in the apple trees.

There’s work for you. So you come back
in your pants old as dirt. With a pipe heavy as stone.   
No time to lose. Whatever is rotten,
whatever won’t hold the weight of another season,   
you hack down. There’s one moment, though,

when you feel almost sorry for them.
The tents break into flame and the small, black   
pieces of anguish crawl
out into the grass. Those that get away, well,   
you let them get away this time.

Susan Mitchell, “Tent Caterpillars” from The Water Inside the Water. Copyright © 1983 by Susan Mitchell. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press.

Source: The Water Inside The Water (Wesleyan University Press, 1983)

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Poet Susan Mitchell b. 1944

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Nature, Sports & Outdoor Activities, Landscapes & Pastorals, Activities

Poetic Terms Free Verse


Susan Mitchell is the author of three collections of poetry, The Water Inside the Water (1983); Rapture (1992), winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and a finalist for the National Book Award; and Erotikon (2000). Her poems have appeared in magazines and journals such as the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, Fence, among others. The recipient of three Pushcart Prizes, Mitchell’s other awards include fellowships from the . . .

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SUBJECT Nature, Sports & Outdoor Activities, Landscapes & Pastorals, Activities

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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