Study Guide

Deep Woods

by Howard Nemerov

Deep Woods eText - eText

Text of the Poem

Such places are too still for history,
Which slows, shudders, and shifts as the trucks do,
In hearing-distances, on the highway hill,
And staggers onward elsewhere with its load
Of statues, candelabra, buttons, gold;     5
But here the heart, racing strangely as though
Ready to stop, reaches a kind of rest;
The mind uneasily rests, as if a beast,
Being hunted down, made tiredness and terror
Its camouflage and fell asleep, and dreamed,     10
At the terrible, smooth pace of the running dogs,
A dream of being lost, covered with leaves
And hidden in a death like any sleep
So deep the bitter world must let it be
And go bay elsewhere after better game.     15
Even the restless eye, racing upon
Reticulated branch and vine which go
Nowhere, at last returns upon itself
And comes into a flickering kind of rest,
Being lost in the insanity of line.     20

Line, leaf, and light; darkness invades our day;
No meaning in it, but indifference
Which does not flatter with profundity.
Nor is it drama. Even the giant oak,
Stricken a hundred years or yesterday,     25
Has not found room to fall as heroes should
But crookedly leans on an awkward-squad of birch,
The tragic image and the mighty crash
Indefinitely delayed in favor of
Fresh weaving of vines, rooting of outer branches,     30
Beginning again, in spaces still more cramped,
A wandering calligraphy which seems
Enthralled to a magic constantly misspelled.

It is the same, they say, everywhere.
But that’s not so. These here are the deep woods     35
Of now, New England, this October, when
Dry gold has little left to change, and half
The leaves are gone to ground, and half of those
Rained into the leaf-mold which tenses in
The fastenings of frost; where the white branches     40
Of birch are dry bones airborne in assaults
Which haven’t worked yet. This unlegended land
Is no Black Forest where the wizard lived
Under a bent chimney and a thatch of straw;
Nor the hot swamp theatrical with snakes     45
And tigers; nor the Chinese forest on
The mountainside, with bridge, pagoda, fog,
Three poets in the foreground, drinking tea
(there is no tea, and not so many as three)—
But this land, this, unmitigated by myth     50
And whose common splendors are comparable only to
Themselves; this leaf, line, light, are scrawled alone
In solar definitions on a lump
Of hill like nothing known since Nature was
Invented by Watteau or Fragonard     55
In the Old Kingdom or the time of Set
Or before the Flood of Yao (or someone else
Of the same name) in the Fourth, or Disney, Dimension.

And this is yours to work; plant it to salt
Or men in armor who destroy each other,     60
Sprinkle with dragon’s blood early in spring
And see what happens, epic or pastoral:
A sword in every stone, small minotaurs
Looking for thread, and unicorns for girls,
And Glastonbury thorns to make December     65
Bleed for the Saviour; the nightingale of Sarras
Enchants the traveler here three hundred years
And a day which seem but as a single day.
More probably nothing will happen. This
Place is too old for history to know     70
Beans about; these trees were here, are here,
Before king Hannibal had elephants
Or Frederick grew his red beard through the table
Or Mordecai hung Haman at the gate.

The other Ahasuerus has not spat     75
Nor walked nor cobbled any shoe, nor Joseph
So much as dreamed that he will found the Corn
Exchange Bank in the baked country of Egypt.
Not even those burnt beauties are hawked out,
By the angry Beginner, on Chaos floor     80
Where they build Pandemonium the Palace
Back in the high old times. Most probably
Nothing will happen. Even the Fall of Man
Is waiting, here, for someone to grow apples;
And the snake, speckled as sunlight on the rock     85
In the deep woods, still sleeps with a whole head
And has not begun to grow a manly smile.