The Testing-Tree

By Stanley Kunitz 1905–2006 Stanley Kunitz
On my way home from school       
        up tribal Providence Hill
                past the Academy ball park
where I could never hope to play
        I scuffed in the drainage ditch
                among the sodden seethe of leaves
hunting for perfect stones
        rolled out of glacial time
                into my pitcher’s hand;
then sprinted lickety-
        split on my magic Keds
                from a crouching start,
scarcely touching the ground
        with my flying skin
                as I poured it on
for the prize of the mastery
        over that stretch of road,
                with no one no where to deny
when I flung myself down
        that on the given course
                I was the world’s fastest human.

Around the bend
        that tried to loop me home
                dawdling came natural
across a nettled field
        riddled with rabbit-life
                where the bees sank sugar-wells
in the trunks of the maples
        and a stringy old lilac
                more than two stories tall
blazing with mildew
        remembered a door in the
                long teeth of the woods.
All of it happened slow:
        brushing the stickseed off,
                wading through jewelweed
strangled by angel’s hair,
        spotting the print of the deer
                and the red fox’s scats.

Once I owned the key
        to an umbrageous trail
                thickened with mosses
where flickering presences
        gave me right of passage
                as I followed in the steps
of straight-backed Massassoit
        soundlessly heel-and-toe
                practicing my Indian walk.

Past the abandoned quarry
        where the pale sun bobbed
                in the sump of the granite,
past copperhead ledge,
        where the ferns gave foothold,
                I walked, deliberate,
on to the clearing,
        with the stones in my pocket
                changing to oracles
and my coiled ear turned
        to the slightest leaf-stir.
                I had kept my appointment.
There stood in the shadow,
        at fifty measured paces,
                of the inexhaustible oak,
tyrant and target,
        Jehovah of acorns,
                watchtower of the thunders,
that locked King Philip’s War
        in its annulated core
                under the cut of my name.
Father wherever you are
        I have only three throws
                bless my good right arm.
In the haze of afternoon,
        while the air flowed saffron,
                I played my game for keeps—
for love, for poetry,
        and for eternal life—
                after the trials of summer.

In the recurring dream
        my mother stands
                in her bridal gown
under the burning lilac,
        with Bernard Shaw and Bertie
                Russell kissing her hands;
the house behind her is in ruins;
        she is wearing an owl’s face
                and makes barking noises.
Her minatory finger points.
        I pass through the cardboard doorway
                askew in the field
and peer down a well
        where an albino walrus huffs.
                He has the gentlest eyes.
If the dirt keeps sifting in,
        staining the water yellow
                why should I be blamed?
Never try to explain.
        That single Model A
                sputtering up the grade
unfurled a highway behind
        where the tanks maneuver,
                revolving their turrets.
In a murderous time
        the heart breaks and breaks
                and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
        through dark and deeper dark
                and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
        Where is my testing-tree?
                Give me back my stones!

Stanley Kunitz, “The Testing-Tree” from The Collected Poems: Stanley Kunitz, published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the Literary Estate of Stanley Kunitz.

Source: The Collected Poems: Stanley Kunitz (W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2000)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Stanley Kunitz 1905–2006

Subjects Coming of Age, Youth

 Stanley  Kunitz


Stanley Kunitz became the tenth Poet Laureate of the United States in the autumn of 2000. Kunitz was ninety-five years old at the time, still actively publishing and promoting poetry to new generations of readers. In the New York Times Book Review, Robert Campbell noted that Kunitz's selection as poet laureate—the highest literary honor in America—"affirms his stature as perhaps the most distinguished living American poet." . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Coming of Age, Youth

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.