Friday, December 1, 2017

The Testing-Tree by Stanley Kunitz


The Testing-Tree

1

On my way home from school
    up tribal Providence Hill
       past the Academy ballpark
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.

2

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.

3

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 tuned
    to the slightest leaf-stir.
       I had kept my appointment.
There I 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.

4

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!

 

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