The Seekonk Woods

When first I walked here I hobbled   
along ties set too close together   
for a boy to step easily on each.   
I thought my stride one day
would reach every other and from then on   
I would walk in time with the way   
toward that Lobachevskian haze   
up ahead where the two rails meet.   
Here we put down our pennies, dark,   
on shined steel; they trembled, fell still;   
then the locomotive out of Attleboro
rattling its berserk wheel-rods into perfect circles,   
brightened them into wafers, the way a fork   
mashes into view the inner light of a carrot   
in a stew. In this late March sunshine,   
crossing the trees at the angle of a bow   
when it effleurages out of the chanterelle   
the C three octaves above middle C,   
the vertical birthwood remembers   
its ascent lines, shrunken by half, exactly   
back down, each tree on its fallen summer.   
Back then, these rocks often asked   
blood offerings—but this one, once, asked bone,   
the time Billy Wallace tripped and broke out
his front teeth. Fitted with gold replicas,
he asked, speaking more brightly, “What good   
are golden teeth, given what we’ve got
to eat?” Nebuchadnezzar
spent seven years down on all fours   
eating vetch and alfalfa, ruminating
the mouth-feel of “bloom” and “wither,”   
until he was whole. If you
held a grass blade between both thumbs   
and blew hard you could blurt a shriek   
out of it—like that beseeching leaves oaks   
didn’t drop last winter just now scratch   
on a breeze. Maybe Billy, lured
by bones’ memory, comes back
sometimes, too, to the Seekonk Woods,   
to stand in the past and just look at it.
Here he might kneel, studying this clump of grass,
as a god might inspect the strands of a human sneeze   
that percusses through. Or he might stray   
into the now untrafficked whistling-lanes   
of the mourning doves, who used to call and call   
into the future, and give a start, as though,   
this very minute, by awful coincidence,   
they reach it. And at last traipse off
down the tracks, with arrhythmic gait,   
as wanderers must do once they realize:   
the over-the-unknown route, too, ends up   
where time wants. On this spot
I skinned the muskrat. The musk breezed away.   
I buried the rat. Of the fur
I made a hat, which as soon as put on   
began to rot off, causing my scalp to crawl.   
In circles, of course, keeping to the skull.
One day could this scrap of damp skin
crawl all the way off, and the whole organism   
follow? To do what? Effuse with musk,   
or rot with rat? When, a quarter-
turn after the sun, the half-moon,   
too, goes down and we find ourselves   
in the night's night, then somewhere   
hereabouts in the dark must be death.   
Knowledge of it beforehand is surely among   
existence’s most spectacular feats—and yet right here,   
on this ordinary afternoon, in these woods,   
with a name meaning “black goose” in Wampanoag,   
or in modern Seekonkese, “slob blowing fat nose,”
this unlikely event happens—a creature   
walking the tracks knows it will come.   
Then too long to touch every tie, his stride   
is now just too short to reach every other,
and so he is to be still the wanderer, the hirtle   
of too much replaced by the common limp   
of too little. But he almost got there.
Almost stepped in consonance with the liturgical,   
sleeping gods’ snores you can hear humming up
from former times inside the ties. He almost   
set foot in that border zone where what follows   
blows back, shimmering everything, making   
walking like sleepwalking, railroad tracks   
a country lane on a spring morning,   
on which a man, limping but blissful,   
makes his way homeward, his lips, suppled   
by kissing to bunch up like that, blowing
these short strands of hollowed-out air,   
haunted by future, into a tune on the tracks.   
I think I’m about to be shocked awake.
As I was in childhood, when I battered myself   
back to my senses against a closed door,
or woke up hanging out of an upstairs window.   
Somnambulism was my attempt to slip
under cover of nightmare across no father’s land   
and embrace a phantasm. If only
I had found a way to enter his hard time   
served at labor by day, by night in solitary,   
and put my arms around him in reality,   
I might not now be remaking him
in memory still; anti-alchemizing bass kettle’s   
golden reverberations back down
to hair, flesh, blood, bone, the base metals.   
I want to crawl face down in the fields
and graze on the wild strawberries, my clothes   
stained pink, even for seven years   
if I must, if they exist. I want to lie out
on my back under the thousand stars and think   
my way up among them, through them,   
and a little distance past them, and attain   
a moment of absolute ignorance,
if I can, if human mentality lets us.
I have always intended to live forever;
but not until now, to live now. The moment   
I have done one or the other, I here swear,   
no one will have to drag me , I’ll come   
but never will I agree to burn my words.
The poplar logs creosoted asleep under the tracks   
have stopped snoring. Maybe they’ve   
already waked up. The bow saws at G.   
An oak leaf rattles on its tree. The rails   
may never meet, O fellow Euclideans,   
for you, for me. So what if we groan.   
That’s our noise. Laughter is our stuttering   
in a language we can’t speak yet. Behind,   
the world made of wishes goes dark. Ahead,   
if not now then never, shines what is.

Galway Kinnell, “The Seekonk Woods” from Three Books. Copyright © 2002 by Galway Kinnell. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved,
Source: Three Books (2002)
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