On Quaking Bog

By Ben Belitt 1911–2003 Ben Belitt

for Jean Brockway

When the walkers-on-water went under,   
the bog-walkers came out of the barberry   
thickets, booted in gum to their hips,   
in a corona of midges, their ears electric   
with sound, beating the stale of the swamp   
with their whips and flailing the ground   
for the itch under the frond, the fern’s   
demonology, the mosquito’s decibel.

Night-sweat clotted their palms. They tasted
their gall. The sumac flickered a swatch
of its leaves in the lichens and venoms,
a dazzle was seen in the fog
as a vegetal world gave way to a uterine,
pitch pulled at their heels and blackened
their knuckles, the bog-laurel’s fan
opened its uttermost decimal and showed them the Bog.

Paradisal, beyond purpose or menace, dewed   
like the flesh of an apple with the damp
of creation, the disk of the pond glowed
under the dragonfly’s bosses, where a faulting   
of glaciers had left it—vaults of bog-rosemary,   
buckbean and Labrador tea, a dapple
of leavening mosses soaking in ice-water, peat-wicks   
feeding their gas to the cranberry braziers.

They entered the bonfire together. The moss   
took their weight like a trampoline:
they walked on the sponge and bitumen without   
leaving a footprint. In between,
in the vats of mat-roses where the waterline   
closed like a skin, the ambiguous
world of imbalance, non-being, the pre-human   
and tentative, was one with the ludicrous.

The quaking began—under their bootsoles   
at first, like a whale under ambergris,
then cramming their wrists with a drummer’s   
vibrations, knocking their ribs and their knees
as all sagged and rebounded. They lurched on the wet   
as though tracing a profile of breakers
or displacing the cords and the voids of a net,   
and staggered back into their childhoods,

till their feet touched the granite again.
The bog tossed them over the threshold
that opened a path in the spruce toward the opposite   
edges. The leaves closed behind them. They walked
an unyielding and tangible world like strangers, remembering   
only the hovering glare where the pitcher-plant’s
hammer closed on the fly—the light shaking and shaking—
as a pulse touched their feet from below, and passed over.

Ben Belitt, “On Quaking Bog” from Nowhere But Light (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970). Used by permission of the Estate of Ben Belitt.

Source: This Scribe My Hand: The Complete Poems of Ben Belitt (Louisiana State University Press, 1998)

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Poet Ben Belitt 1911–2003

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Nature, Trees & Flowers, Landscapes & Pastorals, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Activities, Travels & Journeys

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Ben  Belitt


Poet, translator, and professor Ben Belitt was born in New York City in 1911. He earned degrees from the University of Virginia and taught for many years at Bennington College in Vermont. Sometimes described as one of the neglected masters of 20th century American poetry, Belitt taught and influenced poets such as Susan Wheeler, Reginald Shepherd, and Lynn Emanuel while at Bennington. Susan Wheeler has described Belitt’s . . .

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SUBJECT Nature, Trees & Flowers, Landscapes & Pastorals, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Activities, Travels & Journeys

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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