Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.” I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”
Ted Georgian was the best back-packing buddy I’ve ever had. I’m the speaker in this poem; but he was there, and will vouch for its truth, I have no doubt.
Conversation with a Back-Packer
There is a path that slowly winds its way
Into the Hills. In sudden switchbacks up
It rises from the Tallulah River basin
In North C’lina, and curls around along
The ridges until it crosses the bowl between
Big Scaly and Standing Indian; then, back down
It curves to join the Tallulah once again
In northern Georgia where the valley’s broader.
It was a road put in to bring logs out,
But that was many years ago. Today
It seldom sees a truck, though I have met
The hoofprints of a burro coming down,
Plain where the ground was soft from last week’s rain
Or in white scars where the iron had struck the sparks
Out of the flinty rocks in steeper places.
The beeches have grown for thirty years back in,
Along with scattered stands of birch and hemlock,
And hulks of patriarchs the woodsmen left
As monuments to the forest’s former glory,
And the ever-present patches of rhododendron.
Except for the week-old marks of man-shod hooves
And the absence of older trees in the mist of the roadway,
There was little sign that men had come that way
Since the fathers of the beeches had been laid low.
Were it not for the shelter by the spring
With names and dates inscribed in candle-smoke
Upon the beams as a memorial,
You might have thought that place had been forgotten.
Between the peaks the land is almost flat
And opens in what you’d almost call a meadow,
And there the spring comes up beside the shelter
And almost forms a pond before it forms
The stream which forms Beech Creek, which almost gets
To be a river itself before the Tallulah
Deprives it of its name on down the valley.
There where the water is gentle the deer come
To drink and browse in the quiet of the morning
Before the sun can look in over the broad
Shoulder of Standing Indian, who stands guard
Above them there. If you are there some morning
You might see elven maidens in the distance,
Appearing and disappearing between the tree trunks.
Look closer and they will resolve themselves
Into the deer’s white rumps as they go bounding
Across the ground. And now has come the time
You must be very still and very quiet.
You’ll want the camera from your pack, of course,
But if you move to get it, however slowly,
The rumps will flash just once more and be gone.
Resist temptation. Clutch your bowl of oatmeal
And feel the heat go slowly out of it
As it goes still more slowly out of the fire
And up with the smoke in a grey, spiraled column
That could be one of the trunks of the young birches
‘Round which the doe steps out into the clearing,
No more than twenty feet from where you sit.
She looks at you, and you are sure she sees you.
She stands and stares as motionless as you do.
Then, being satisfied you’re not a hunter
(It’s said they know the day the season opens,
And what guns are, and partly I believe it),
The graceful head goes down and starts to tear
Away the undergrowth. No, “tear” is wrong–
For later when you go there, you will find
The leaves and stems are clipped away as neatly
As you could do it with a pair of hedge-shears.
But now, this living thing that stands before you,
Its breath as white as yours in the cold air!
Up here she wanders and lives out her life
Within the ancient hills and infant forest,
Depending on no man to come and feed her.
She mates and bears her young and crops her leaves
And dances with her fellows in the forest
And warily sniffs the air for signs of hunters
(As she does now: see how the head comes up
With eyes and ears and nose all sharply pointed
Toward me at the slightest sound or movement
For a brief eternity of fierce attention
To see if I am still behaving myself.
Then, satisfied, the slender neck goes down
To feed again). All this she does and more,
And would even if I’d never come to see her.
You’ve seen deer in the zoos, no doubt, so tame
That children feed them milk from baby bottles,
And beautiful they are, but not the same.
The camera could not have told the difference
If I had gotten to it. Paint on canvas,
Fanciful words on paper about elf-maidens,
Suggest it merely. You must go yourself
And catch you own glimpse of the mystery.
There is no guarantee that you’ll see anything,
But give up guarantees, and go. Remember,
Grace comes to whom it will. There’s no explaining
Just why it touches one and not another.
You must be very still and very quiet.
Then if the deer comes, take it as a gift
Unearned. You are her uninvited guest;
You are a pilgrim and a stranger here:
The spring and meadow high between the mountains
Belong to her and to her kind forever.
Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
Donald T. Williams, PhD