Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The Woods at Night

In September and October 2013 I made a number of night walks through deep woods close to where I lived. I made the walks in the dark of night with no torch or mobile. I avoided the forest paths and cut straight through the untouched woods, although I had previously reconnoitred my route by daylight. If I had become incapacitated in any way it would have been extremely awkward. I did it because I wanted to find out what it was like. It was hard work and not to be recommended to anyone who worries about ghosts or ghouls; or indeed wandering madmen (which is probably what I was). I made detailed notes immediately after the walks and this poem records my impressions, although it then moves on to meditate on the frailty of physical existence and the experience of the Absolute gained in extreme situations. 
   The poem is 296 lines long and has 6 sections, each of which begins and ends with alexandrines which rhyme. Otherwise, the poem is written in rugged iambic pentameter,  perhaps best thought of as syllabic, although as it moves into the meditative later part the metre becomes more regular. Briefly, the argument is: section 1 - sets the scene as dusk falls; section 2 - the walk starts as night deepens; section 3 - making the walk in deep dark; section 4 - gaining a forest path and making my way over heathland back to a village; section 5 - ponders what would have happened if I or someone had fallen and broken a leg; section 6 - extends the meditation to the contingency of animal life, and to man suffering and dying in "civilized" settings, before returning to the forest to consider the experience of the Absolute and the provisional nature of existence.
   Such themes have always interested me; as far back as 1979 I wrote a couple of extended poems in free verse as meditations on time and existence prompted by natural settings. "Ashford Stream" (in Edward Thomas country) can be seen here and "The Ridgeway Above Wroughton" here


Sunk in the autumn woods dusk deepens to bruise-brown.
Standing in brittle leaf mulch, suede and grey,
I watch the oak trunks, grossly-waisted, darken
And the ragged chestnuts blanch in the gloom;
Above, through clawing hands of dead-leaved branches
A washed sky of linen dirties to ash.
A thick silence in the browning light stiffens
Like dregs, and shadows, bulky as sludge, seep
Beneath yew trees grown grimly dark as caves.
A sharp slope strewn with rotting boles and swart
Coverts of nettles fades impetuously 
As if a great fist closed. There’s a weak groan
Of traffic mewing from a motorway
At distance, though stymied by the wood’s stillness
And the cold air’s aloof indifference.
Tersely, an acorn clatters through an oak’s
Twisted crown or a twig toboggans through
A maple’s rusty foliage. They slap
The ground and cease. Uneased, I shuffle, snapping
Dry branches underfoot and scattering
The crackling leaf trash. Near but hid a blackbird
Scolds this dangerous noise; higher, a crow
Croaks angrily, daunted by the uncharted
Passage of night. Silence silences all.
The wood becomes a sombre, introverted frown. 

Night falls; the forest petrifies in sullen dark.
The air is muddy-thick, bile-brown; above,
The shreds of sky are charcoal metal-grey.
Vistas coagulate in shadow masses,
Swathing the copper-boled beeches and dank
Crouching holly. The silence now is tough 
And leathern chestnuts plummet with a rip
Like tearing cloth. Moving by the foot’s touch
I blunder into arching bramble shoots,
Painfully snagging flesh, or lurch shakily
On tree or gorse roots. Worse are the unseen
Spiders’ webs, graspingly-meshing on face
And neck, loaded with dust and papery
Rubbish of leaf fall. Crunching at every step
Twigs and branches grossly implode like fungus
Trodden upon. All’s indistinct; ripe smells                                             
Assail: sour leafage, boggy earth, tart dust,
Fruiting fungus and insect-rotten wood.
The darkness deepens and a shaking night wind 
Sweeps through the wood, disturbing the tree crowns,
Rattling the holly bushes and shivering
The draped ivy so that its captive litter 
Trickles like rain. A magpie gratingly cries  
Then settles, as does the rough wind which leaves no mark.