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.

Deepest night: mind-shocked, in the crowded wood all’s black.
The sky’s no more, become as black as forest.
Nothing’s seen; merely there’s black, looming large
To the eye. With guesswork-staring it’s possible 
To tease out brown-bulk masses from the black,
Availing them to blunder a tormented
Progress back to a track. They represent
The vistas threading, when there’s light, between
The tree stands. Movement now is difficult –
Like shoving through an unlit warehouse crammed
With coarsest hangings and leg-twisting steps.
Unseen, brambles tear thighs with locking teeth,
Clattering holly seizes cheeks, bush roots
Fell you to knee in unsuspected thickets,
Flaying skin as you clutch at splintered branches
And slicing palms with earthy, sharp-faced flints.
Looms suddenly a wall of roots and earth –
The pungent root mass of a fallen trunk
Now rotting corpse-like in engulfing ivy;
Close up the roots are mummified and clogged
With spiders’ web and cordings of dead creeper.
In utter dark it’s difficult to keep
Direction when all’s ducking, stumbling, probing;
Rough-barked saplings and rope-strong tendrils crowd
Your face, repulsing every straightline effort;
Repeatedly the unseen ground slips plumb
To branch-filled hollows, ripping shin and ankle,
And your taint sweat, wetting your clothes, wreathes you
Like stink of fox in the forest silence.
Lost now but prayerful there’s a track nearby,
Keeping at bay that chill anxiety
That clasps a man to helplessness you plunge 
Into a rancid sea of chest-high ferns.
Wading through broaching waves gone leaden-green
In the darkness, the stems delay your legs
Like backwash. Dustily the fronds rasp at 
Your neck and stumbling in burrows you sink
Beneath them, surfacing with nose and mouth
Grainy with twig, leaf, bur and clotted web.
Panting with painful breath and stiffened legs
At last you force through to the nettled bank
Edging a forest path. At once, unseen
Among the darkened trees, two tawny owls
Begin to call, their fluting whistles terse 
With the brute contingency of the wood’s life.
They set you on your way, sweat-damp and weary,
To the village, too fraught and thirsty to look back.

The path is a well-kicked ribbon of forest sand 
Scattered with glossy globes of horse’s dung;
Freed from the blind dungeon-crush of the wood
Your night sight picks out details once again;
There’s the white pencil trunks of birch restraining
The forest’s overflowing edge like staves,
The sky has reappeared like a brown varnish
Paled in patches of milky daubs of cloud.
Patrolling silently the far horizon
The lights of aircraft wander languidly
Around a distant airport; banking slowly
They wink and disappear. Still hot and sweating
You tramp the path, the only moving thing
To agitate the soup-like density 
Between the forest walls. Eventually
Forging on heathland, an airy freshness of sky
Opens around you; above, glim flickering
Of stars, beneath, the shadowed inclines of
The heath gone wan with dew. Racing across
The gloomy turf a shape – loose dog or fox? –
Sinks into the maw of the wood’s black bulk
Spread through the darkness like a looming wave.
A fast walk brings you finally through brakes
Of hawthorn and of spiny furze to sight
Of the village’s first lights, as welcome as 
Oases to the parched desert voyager.
And then you’re walking lanes beneath the orange
Sprinklings of sodium lights establishing
Their frail cocoon of civitas against
The snuffing night. Stars and your night sight die.
The road lights at the village green illume
A sediment of mist, man-high, reposing
On grass and pond, as cloudy-white as absinthe;
Late joggers plodding placidly in lycra
Veer through it like fish in water. The pubs
And bistros, rosy with heat and sociable 
Chatter, propose consumption and sizzling meats. 
Beyond the heath, ignored like an offshore
Island, the forest’s bolt-black mournfulness
Pilots the unsafe night: there’s wary sleeping,
Scuffled feeding, stalking, a scream of slaying
Then bloodied silence – origins forsaken
By diners calling service with a waving hand. 

But should that canopy of light and warmth, replete 
With soy-glazed ribs and cherry-ripple tourte,
Be breached, what’s to prevent a fatal fall
Into a state that’s merely physical,
Reduced in fact to forest life in which
A man’s at mercy of his instinct, skill
And luck? Think this: how thinly-scattered life
In the wood’s weathered depths must be – and harsh,
How harsh! You might have fallen, fighting through
The wiry undergrowth in that deep dark,
And snapped a leg. Grounded, sans coat, sans food,
No water, mobile dead, you would have foul-mouthed
Away the night – mild, thankfully, though damp
By dawn – dozing to twist awake when something
Shuffled warily in the loud leaf mould.
Come morning you’d have shouted helplessly,
Have tried to drag yourself in some direction,
Aimless, because hemmed round by fallen trunks,
Chlorine-odoured with rot-mauve fungus, staked
By nettles red-rashing your scrabbling arms;
Your thigh would have stunned you with a sear of pain,
Your chinos at the knee gone bloody-brown.
Eventually, you’d have fetched up breathless,
Propped on a willow stump, hungry and cold,
Under the blanching shadow of the wood’s
Unstable wind-assailed marquee. The hours
Would have wandered, spiders and fat horse-fly
Made constant scout on the sweetness of your flesh, 
And hard-eyed blackbirds would have dropped to branches
To stare unfeelingly above your head.
Finally, the night falling, you would scream
In fear and fury, dusty-lipped with thirst,
Your leg swelling and aching. It would rain
That night – percussively like chattering
Acorns rattling through the oaks. You would lie
Foetal and weeping but for your cracked leg –
Freezing, soaking, drowsing, starving, hot-mouthed
With fever; striking frantically when a snout 
Nuzzled gruffly your busted leg. Oh God,
The dark! Sheer manhood-slaying soot-thick dark!
Unlit by any raindrop’s flash to ease
Its thickness, black as in a sealed-off mine.
The next day – what is there to say? – you’d drift
Half-consciously, a squirming maggot pulsed  
In frozen pain. A carrion crow would perch
Nearby in a cripple-twisted buckthorn tree,  
Taking an interest with its heavy beak.
Your screams mere croaks, another soaking night
And bone-incising wind would shrink you to  
A mottled slab of flesh, your consciousness
Resigned like that of a limp sparrow caught
In a cat’s mouth. The crow, emboldened now,
Would strut the sopping earth around your head,
Sizing up your eyes with its drilling bill...
After December snows and January’s
Ice-frozen famishing, stripping the wood
To a beige landscape under clay-hard sky,
And after March and April’s pulsing gales,
Thrashing the new-leaf trees with a furore
Like crashing masonry, a woodman, come
To clear the streams of last year’s wind-impacted
Leaf dams, by chance, would find your body stretched 
In fresh-green ivy like some fractured log. 
Of course, your stomach would have burst, your flesh
On arms and legs been torn, and dusty bone 
Would prod like struts through your discoloured shirt;
Unceasing, slugs and grubs would liquefy
Your leavings, nourishing for them as finest wheat.

What’s true of man waylaid is true of one and all:
That thrush which landed with a sprightly thump
On an aspen’s branch, knocking it a-shiver, 
Then shook its wings with a rattle-edged clap
Of quill and pinion, appetitive in
Embodiment, will one day topple to
The leaf drifts on the forest floor and crouch
With fever-crusted eyes beneath a bush,
Forgotten by its fellows, fast discovered
By a famishing fox craving the taste
Of blood; its ruptured carcass will be left,
Pitiful with a few disordered feathers,
To putrefy for garbage. Every fox
And bird, each woodland creature, suffers thus:
That helpless moment on a wind-raw day
When death engorges being, unstoppable  
And terror-struck, and physicality 
Despairingly lets go the trees and ferns
And tumbles in a sudden dip to darkness.
These woodland truths are no less true beneath
The sodium cupola of village ways:
No Hockney landscapes tellingly displayed
In drawing rooms of ivied mansions, proud
In private roads; no strolls with well-soaped setters,
Musing into mobiles to pliant brokers;
No lunches on the green with opera later
In county towns where ostentatious supper
Will round the day, will count a fig when, hospice-
Stranded, someone, shriven by lawyers of
His artworks and investments, refereed
By monitors insensate as a hangman,
Will face his death by liver rot, struck mute 
With pain and horror. There’s no salvation
Delivered then by busy apparatus
For all its lights and touch-screen subtlety;
Exposed, defenceless, the self’s sense declining,
His agony’s the one and same as if
He’d staggered in the woods and wrecked a leg.  
And what’s known always, though usually ignored, 
Unveils to self-disclosure in extremis,
More blatantly in a forest crucible
Than the thermostatic lodging of a hospice –
I mean the absent-ever-presence of
The Absolute. Flattened in shaking pain 
In the sopping wood’s tilth through the lost hours
Of night, a full moon, large as the noon sun,
Its gilded face serene as watered silk,
Holds station over you, at times obscured
By the thrown trees’ crowns and the dark disarray
Of rain clouds, imperturbable in all
Its observations, its light upon your skin
Through all that tortured stir of wind and rain
Like a finger. It stands a symbol for
That apprehension which impassibly
Subsists beneath and momently sustains
The atmospheric processes disporting
The wood’s wet leafage on this gale-struck night,
And equally sustains your frozen wreck
Of flesh as you haplessly drift to death;
Yes, even now, although uninterfering,
Its pressure’s felt at every point along
Your streaming skin – Being progenitive
Of being, though now it freely moderates
Your dissolution. Every creature spends
Its final moments, long or short, alone,
Whether wailed at by family around
A tear-stained deathbed or prostrate upon
The forest floor, but only man, if minded,
Can con that stroking of the Absolute
Which giftingly keeps being being even
As it passes the forest-dark portal where
No poem’s writ can run. That someone had
To trip and die in the wood’s entanglements
To prompt this meditation unconcerns
The Absolute: fecundity and loss
Are warp and woof in this sun and water sphere, 
And any dealings with the grand Sustainer
Whose toughness as creative gift is borne
By every creature will teach a hard text: 
That being in its fullest moments of
Warmth and sustenance, exuberantly
Fulfilling the insistings of its nature,
Is jointly living and dying so that 
The children racing round the village maypole,
Greedily carolling the surge of spring,
Or the late stumbler in the autumn woods,
Relishing the reek of the strong black earth,
At best step lightly on the crusted soil
And always wear a wedding garment and a pall.
© October 2013



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