Poetry

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The Wood

by Lionel E. Deimel

 

In front of my house is a sidewalk

That runs through my neighborhood,

Past house and lawn and playground,

And a dark, five-acre wood.

 

It’s odd that the wood should be there,

Where streets and buildings should be—

An island of feral chaos

In a sea of domestic tranquility.

 

With their colorful shutters and gardens,

And their mailboxes all in a row,

The houses declare their appointments,

While the wood is reluctant to show

 

What secrets may hide at its center,

What animals prowl in that dark,

What birds perch high in its branches

What insects ply debris and bark.

 

After a storm, I hear clearly

The babble of water below;

On occasion, a woodchuck emerges,

Or a chipmunk, a buck, or a doe.

 

Yet the wood remains enigmatic,

And I am content but to see

An oasis of naïve enchantment

In a desert of suburban ennui.

 

Tree

 

At least two of my earlier poems were inspired by a wooded tract near where I live in suburban Mt. Lebanon, Pa. The wood is an incongruous feature of the landscape—more wild forest than park—surrounded as it is by vintage housing and manicured lawns. I thought it time to write a poem about this anomaly, though I did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to say. Perhaps this is why the poem was slow in coming. I sat down many times intending to make progress writing it without making any progress at all. I began with this first verse:

When I walk from my house in the suburbs,

On my way to the trolley stop,

I pass some homes and a playground,

And the wood by the bicycle shop.

This verse took certain liberties with the arrangement of local landmarks, but it seemed to be a good enough opening. Finally, in a single day, 7/20/2007, I finished the poem. When I employed the island metaphor at the end of the second verse, I got the idea of using an oasis metaphor at the very end. I knew that that metaphor would need to be more positive about the natural world, but that's all I knew. I expected to write more descriptive verses, but I think I wrote enough to make the transition from the benign neighborhood and sinister intrusion of nature, to engaging but mysterious nature and an otherwise bland environment.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that, however dense the actual wood, it is not quite the terra incognita of the poem. The wood is difficult to see into, but one can recognize a small ravine, a chaotic collection of standing and fallen trees, and a curious collection of vegetation that includes, improbably, a bamboo grove. Certain patches do seem impenetrable, though, at least in summer. The tract likely covers 2–3 acres, but “five-acre wood” somehow has a more poetic ring to it.

As first completed, “that dark,” in verse four, was “the dark,” and “suburban,” in the very last line, was “provincial.” From the beginning, I wanted to use “suburban ennui” at the end—I had rejected “worldly ennui” as being too abstract—but I was unwilling to repeat “suburban,” which had been used in verse one. Weeks after I thought I was done with the poem, a friend complained about the first verse. “I've been to about 35 poetry workshops,“ she said, “and the most common problem is that poems don’t get going until the third or fourth verse.” She suggested that my first verse got the poem off to a slow start. I didn’t want to hear this, but she had a point. By way of helping me find a replacement verse, she offered a single word: “neighborhood.” I wasn’t sure what she meant by this, but I did note that the word rhymed with “wood.” By substituting the current first verse, which I did on 8/12/2007, I could justify “suburban” in the last line and could use “that dark,” echoing “dark” in the new line four.

In writing this poem, a few technical issues gave me fits. The meter here is freer than I usually employ, but even the extra freedom I afforded myself did not keep me from rejecting certain lines as defective. Of what remains, the most problematic phrase is “domestic tranquility.” I nearly substituted “domesticity,” but the meter seem off just a bit too much. “Domestic tranquility” may not be perfect, either, but I liked it enough to leave it in. A last-minute substitution in the first version of the poem was “wood” for “woods.” Although I personally almost never use “wood” in preference to “woods,” I was bothered by “woods is,” which, though acceptable usage, is nonetheless distracting. Besides—or so I told myself—“wood” suggests something more like a grove than a substantial forest, which was appropriate. Finally, there is the use of the word “debris,” which is the perfect word for what I intended, namely, leaves, and the like, on the ground. I pronounce “debris” with the stress on the second syllable. In this poem, the stress must be on the first syllable, however, which it is as some people pronounce it. I chose not to worry about that.

— LED, 8/12/2007

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