The Way Out of the Wood

So I walked the brittle path crackling with glass
And scattered twigs
Until right of way dissolved and I was stopped
By boundary
Of barbed wire engrossed in thickets:
Mud in thaw

Giving up its scrap iron.
I turned
And followed the fence a long way down the hill.
No path,
But tilts of embedded shale unevenly
Led me down

Surfaces clumped with one-colored leaves
Loose dirt
And other rock; no clear way
But over logs
Propped and rotten in a tangle of dormant vine
I went

Through thorny shadows sprawled and looped on rock
My hand could break,
Steadied from tree to tree down the shale track
In a long slant
Almost to the edge of a narrow creek
At the bottom.

This was an unfamiliar gap in the wood:
Dry vines
Knotted to the cleats of trees,
Dead brush
In shade the color of a railroad spike,
And my own absence

Cast ahead which had to mean
Presence here—
Since, having wandered far from feeling
Any certainty, I had come
Away from the roads I knew, following
For a long time

The stubble ground under powerlines
Which dipped and rose
On towering cages, iron armatures,
Across cool fields,
Over and under slopes, disregarding property
And highway,

Until, leaving the hum and crackle
Of high-tension wires,
I followed an old path into these woods,
Such as they were,
And like a drifting boat run suddenly aground,
Came here.

Standing on a stump before the tangled water
I looked back
Through February stalled before spring:
Budless trees
Bare, dryrotted things, and the whole wood
Relapsed into autumn

With the smell of rot released from frozen leaves:
A false thaw
Raising the wreckage of memory
From other seasons,
Preventing the simple momentum of the steps
Which took me forward.

I turned again. The obstructed creek
Glinted up,
Sun buckling on the water out of shape
Through splintered limbs
And a snare of thorn; then

Through almost a break in growth I came to a flat
Clear place
Where curving water
Out of the fallen woods.
Bright seconds

Of creek shifted between transparent, thin
Panels of ice
About to wash away: its light burden
Of reflections carried
In downward treetops over irreducible
Yellow pebbles

Some version of myself,
Foreshortened, flat,
Wavering in and out of a shallow focus
Over the paint-can
With its bottom rusted out, and Clorox bottle
Split and white,

Full of mud and pebbles, but otherwise
Shuddering with everything in the creek's
Continual drag
Of twigs and leaves and pebbles
Along the bottom.

Caught between rocks downstream,
A doubled branch
Loosened and shifted, untangling in sky,
And unsnarled in me,
Through my scattered shadow, shifting with the rest
On the quick

Shallow surface. I stood still on the bank.
When the light
Changed suddenly
I felt
The cold of clay ooze upward through my legs,
Trees darken on my neck, and I saw

Into the involved heart of metal
And fallen limbs
Where leaves were clumped and caught, until my mind
Was water
But burdened with by-products,
Choked with sediment,

Alive and moving, but imperfectly
Fluid over gravel and glass,
And cluttered with commerce
Come to its last shape
In the moving cold.
I saw only

Things I had come so far
To avoid awhile,
To walk and think
In other terms
Than those assumed for me,
Had followed me here.

I made an abscess where the wilderness
Fell away.
The water in the creek slowed and stopped
As, mixing in loose mud,
I looked into the ground glass of creek silt
And sank

Almost to another time when reason whirred from me
Like a coin flung
Into a trash of vines and dormant things,
And I stood
At the edge of a great machinery

Everything that moves delights in change,
But I
Was hung on another time like a snagged branch
Struggling to be water,
Flailing in eloquent shape from side to side
But never forward.

Then the world leaked into me:
Sense through punctures and pores,
The cables clamped
To old ironwork of trees.

I shook from my own shudder of surfaces
And heard the sound
Of the narrow water, moving as before
Between where I was
And had to go; I balanced at the edge,
And crossed the creek.

This side was briarless and cold, out of sun
Most of the time, it seemed,
With fewer trees—tall sycamores
Still hung with burrs,
And a few oaks and maples. Fallen things
Scattered upward

Where the hillside rose ahead in its own shade
To the fenceline,
Which, climbing almost to the ridge, disappeared
In another thicket.
I met no stranger walking in that wood,
No animals,

Only the trash and rocks
Giving no guidance
Over landslides of shale and broken limbs
Where I had to take myself;
But I climbed uphill easily, making a path
To where the barbed-wire

Fence strung with brambles changed
Its direction,
And the massed vines turned away with it.
A glint of railbed showed between the limbs
And empty shrubs,

And I made for its obvious track out of the wood,
Although the slope down
Was lost in undergrowth and toppled trees.
I climbed
Almost into the sun and moved downhill,
Wading through

Uprooted stumps, gullies and barren spots
Eroding under vines,
Over a world that scavenged on itself,
Maple bones
Leaning deep into the light mattress of vines
The color of iron,

And fallen sycamores overgrown, dismantled.
Coming out of the cold
Leaning umber of the woods,
My own shadow led me
Down between the standing sycamores
to a frozen ditch,

Its red mud glittering with fishscale ice
Too thawed to walk on,
Where the railbed rose up in a gravemound hump
From bitter leaves
Half-liquid in red thaw. I jumped across,
And scrambled

Up gravel and broken glass to level track.
I followed the rails
Toward a curve which changed a little
As I moved,
Its bed always glittering
With glass

Found broken in dirty gravel between the ties
But glittering on ahead
Where the woods were a dead sprawl of dormant growth.
A month from here,
After the hard thaw, there would be
Abundant drainage

Through clouds and leaves, a billion capillaries,
Though now nothing was left
But skin and bones of tattered sycamores,
And sky
Nailed to naked branches overhead
With iron burrs.

Still the harsh wood oppressed me,
Bitter with rot;
Monotonously plodding into it
Over the level ties, as its air
Numbed me to the cold of minerals,
I walked

An hour along the track
Without seeing a house,
Crossroads, or human life:
Only the wood,
Barren and open like a dismantled motor,
Its parts strewn

Along the banks of the track. This narrow way
Could only lead me
Through long corridors of landscape stained
The color of transit,
Past backyards dark with sticky residue
Of past combustion, on

To mammoth linkages, a great circuit
In old ritual of conveyance
Industrial parts
Of some great, sectioned city
With the same

Rotten concrete and fences gone to rust,
Corrugated streets,
Slag of peeling advertisements
In blocks abandoned to
A holocaust of automobiles; and lives
Lived or not lived

In terms of the marketplace. I heard the creek
Ahead and under,
Where the railroad bridge
Crossed a broad ditch;
My shadow turned, the gravel dropped away,
And the woods opened.

I walked unbraced onto the heavy framework
Of the trestle,
Which crossed a gully where the creek
I'd passed before
Curved into my path again. As I moved
Its currents flashed

And flared up from gaps in structure
Under me; sun-shocked
And fluent in the clear and present air,
I felt
No more heaviness
But only balanced

Over the good, cold creek cleaning its bed
Of mattress-springs,
Bottle-glass and ice. Cool from the open
Spaces between ties
Rushed around me as I stepped
And sun was in my eyes

Warm and cold at once, the winter sun,
Rush of things
Glossy and still in melt and movement,
Over forgotten
Burdens of other times
Remembered here

Only the way the creek
Beneath me
Remembered the broken jars and mattress-springs
Wedged between its rocks
As currents formed along them,
Solvent water

Pouring through and around the junk,
Wearing away
Long histories of use,
Forgiving each thing of itself
Particle by particle, in its business
Of always emptying.

I was absolved as well, in sun and wind,
Winter again
A moment over rushing water
And good cold
Cleansing thought: the sun's wafer
Washed on the water surface

As if it would wear away, be borne away,
But its idea kept
Firm in all that wobbling
Of surfaces
Within elliptic shapes and scatterings
Of flickered sparks

Across the stream, never held purely true,
Tormented at times
By quick shakings, humps and shifts in current,
But always accounting
Its shape, allowing circumstance;
It crowned the stream.

But I crossed over; shadowy woods and weeds
Surrounded me again
In their brown light, muffling the wash
Of the creek
Until all I heard was my own step, plodding
On dirt

Heavy timber and cracked rock
Into the muddy hardness of the wood
Complicated in swamp
Thorn, vines and trash of trees
To either side.

Another mile into the afternoon
I stopped; to the side,
Bleak spaces between trees,
Bone-colored ice,
A mess of leaves and deadfall

Silence, excepting, when I moved, my step.
I was tiring.
The stained line of ties spread far ahead
Into endless trees
And silences with no more sign of life.
Thinking I was alone,

The only one who might have come this way,
I moved on, but my eye
Faltered over a foundation in the woods.
Almost hidden there,
A house leaned heavily into its shadow's
Abandoned shape,

Ransacked of its history.
Whatever was left
In the warped roof and twist
Of old structure
Straining toward collapse
But lacking force,

Stood with another life among the wood's
Natural wreckage,
Its frames forced out of shape,
Its muddy glass
Reflecting all the undigested things
Thawed loose

In this wrong weather. Suddenly the wood
Was full of ghosts
Suspended in confusion between the seasons,
And all the unrepaired,
Sunken, forgotten life
Was rising up:

Shadows fell and ran in all directions
From empty spots
In remembered light, flashing loose from leaves
As a banged scar
Resurfaces to pulse original pain;
In that confusion

Lives superimposed on things
And things on lives
Rose in the empty wood and almost shimmered
To solid life again,
In the lumbering shadows cast by trees long
Fallen and gone.

Then the fires faded, and my tired eyes
Looked down the track.
Over the crunch and dazzle of the glass and ice
Toward horizon
Found underfoot, glazing a scum of grease
Between ties

But glittering ahead
Where I was going,
I walked, longing for space, to see the strip
Of sky
High over the rails
Opened again,

And closed in only by my curving eye.
Shadows reached
Miles from the tops of trees'
And rooted in my shadow as I walked:

Of high dusk burned in the comb of a hilltop,
Over the sprawl of stones and sticks, beginning now
The gradual
Abandonment of shapes
Known again at dawn

When, if the thaw could end, and all the times
The mud had given up
Sink back and harden to a winter air,
Beside the twisted roof
Mud would digest the glass
Sky decorated once.

Shadows were loosening their knots of debt
Already, and I knew
Before color failed and fluttered on the last
Tips of twigs where great sycamores reached
Out of their shades,

I ought to find a way out of the wood, even if
Only back to the place
I came from. Around another curve
I saw
A dark circle in the railroad ditch
To one side:

A tire in the weeds, full of water
Iridescent, stagnant,
And half-sunk in muck,
Tilted to point
Away where it might have come from through the brush,
Rolling there

After a spirited abandonment,
Bounced from a road
Somewhere nearby, which would be sure to lead
Out to other roads,
Out of the woods, out of the afternoon
Turning cold and dull.

Where the woods thinned out into brackish thaw
I followed my shadow down
The built embankment
Onto the track
I myself made back into the trees,
Wading into weeds

And gathering burrs, but soon finding a way
Less overgrown
Through a stand of wild
That showed the sky through spines
And flat, twisted pods,

Where I could make my path straight out
Of the muddy wood
And wasted afternoon
To built ground again.
I came through those trees
A little uphill,

Where the earth was flat and solid, tilted, nude
Of undergrowth:
Horse chestnuts, rotten acorns, and walnuts,
Sized, the spongy bitter green
Rotted away

From black interior, which stained my palm
As I winged one ahead
And saw, up the gradual hill where it skipped to rest,
The narrow mark
Of a gray strip between the thinning trees,
Either fence

Or secondary road. Wiping my hand,
I walked
Under the decorated sycamores,
Bone white,
Hung with round burrs
Like ornaments,

And came at last to the outskirts of the wood.
Where my shadow turned
Down a pathless hillside covered with shrubs and trash,
I picked my way among
The fallen trunks and branches of great trees,
At times

Wading through leafmeal. At the edge,
Enormous horizontals
Blazed through the line of oaks
Marking the end of the wood;
Reddish-brown beyond a vine-bound fence,
Middle dusk

Was iron oxide on an iron sky
Over lanes of weeds
And a broad field of shapes glittering
Through shrubs
Watered with gasoline,
All going brilliant

Burnt-orange through an opening in the boundary.
I found my way
Down through thorns a dry gray hillside, into
A ditch
Clogged with acorn shells, and up along
The fence

I held to, feeling its pattern
Cold in my grip,
To steady my pace over piles of rotten leaves
Toward the opening
Where I could walk under whole sky, away
From the afternoon

And all the cluttered wood
Had given up.
Through the chainlink, clogged with scrub,
I could see
A lower level, of weeds laid out with paths;
Reflecting shapes

Flashed like water in the strained sun.
A fallen part of the fence
Opened downward, toward a gigantic wheel
Of great, annihilated iron things
Scattered far and wide on a dirt lot.
Walking into the last sun

I crossed
Where chainlink fence, puckered and collapsing,
Tackled by undergrowth,
Was beaten down into the mud; and stood
At the edge of a junkyard.
Paths ran far ahead between stacks of cars

And piles of tires; roads
Spread toward the hub of the field like a city plan.
I passed,
Wading out of undergrowth, first
Onto a wide skirt
Of junk beyond the boundary of the yard,

Outside commerce,
Sold for the last time; there, in a waste of parts
Too scattered for salvaging,
Whole cars straddled the property line,
Their hoods gone, and leaned
Into new shapes across the thawing ground

With bloated magazines, split cassettes,
Magnetic tape unspooled, creased, stripped
Of information, inks long ago
Bled to one color as discarded ledgers
Swelled and buckled
And all ownership was given back

To materials
Resuming their own life in the open mud.
Just beyond
Where the woods petered out, and just before
The junkyard boundary,
I had come at last to the end of the marketplace.

I walked the unmarked ground
Looking for some path in the high grass
To lead me across the margin,
In among the tenement stacks of cars
And on into
The great wealth of our waste;

Here was everything
Marked down to nothing,
And supply
Scattered out of stock,
Beyond demand,
Entering the economy of snails.

As I passed through
That rind between places, where anything
Could fall unclaimed,
Forgotten except by weather
Between untended properties,
The junkyard rose ahead through littered weeds,

And saw
My poor present refracted through the glass
Of other times,
To other purposes:
I thought I saw
A shattered windshield glinting whole again,

Its hanging glass
Fill with a morning sky; and then I saw
Things first
Give up their histories to noon light
Then afternoon
Until at last, here by the fence of trees

In the oldest languages
Of rust and glitter,
All things gave up their history
To now.
Dusk followed me

Coming out of the cool
Woods onto the broadness of the lot,
Where I found
Long, geometric aisles in the high grass
And littered mud,
Crackling with each step the dark ground's

Literal glitter
Of jars and headlights, safety glass and mirrors
Between cars, each
Preserving the after-instant
Of its wreck
In cold shape of reaction.

I entered the yard,
Where bodies of automobiles, piled up high,
Made a maze
In which I wandered always inward,
On layers of glass and trash,
Through dark corridors of mineral.

For a long time
I followed what I found to follow there,
From sky to fractured sky,
Through inventory of old accidents,
Across a field
Glittering with the sense of other lives

Only in what was wasted
And reduced
To harden to this crust of time and place.
Broken down,
Unburdened in this field, multiplied

Past any value,
Only these stubborn husks remained of lives
Lived out in work
Without hope of infamy or praise,
Spent for money
And exhausted here.

In the long circles of concentric paths
Overtaken machinery
Unadvertised, unbargained for,
Brought here
After what danger, labor, sacrifice,

I found
The purpose of the road,
A cleared space
All paths converged upon, and ended in,
At the hub of the yard.
I stood at the center, and looked out from there

At the heavy pattern
Laid down enormously across the field:
I had come across
A neglected place, far from busy lives,
Where all our evidence
Lay uncovered in a winter thaw—

Our history held up
An instant in a windshield's glittering, limp
Then drained into its dark record of impact:
Cause known only
In rough configuration of effect.

The spot,
Windless and quiet, where I stood,
Was the eye
Of our terrible hurricane;
I had found
The secret center of America.

Everywhere I looked
To follow the scheme imposed across the field
I could see
Elements of obliterated lives
And totaled in the process of this place;

And I saw that more
Was never wasted, than the vast
Expanding from this point—
Or never wasted long.
This was no desolation from a bomb.

We built this city.
Our machinery made this, and demanded
Daily fuel
Of human work and life,
Involving us
To raise its product higher.

My shadow changing where it ran ahead
Over changed things,
I headed through a vacancy outspread
Over the great field,
Away from the stacks of cars

Toward what must be
Other boundaries of fence and road,
Laid to rust
On outskirts of outskirts, this place where all roads
Dead-ended in high grass.
Leaving the center of the yard, I saw

Slow darkening
Making the field of things its other self,
As air rusted through
To show the spaces underneath the hood,
The dark gap
Around the engine.

The cold returned,
Resounding winter;
Cracks crawled
On knocked windshields wrestling with their shapes,
And contracting metal
Sounded in all the circles outlying

As a February air
Rose from the railbeds in a billion crystals
Over paths
Littered with glass needles,
Where the quick continual
Had hovered all morning on the outstripped metal.

Passing the highest, hollow stacks of cars,
Having made my way
Through the cold rummage of the thawing wood
Only to a clearing
At the center of a junkyard, I came

Out among
The last shapes of cars
Pried apart
At hinge and weld with the slow, insinuated crow-
Bar of a tree's shadow,
And finding a likely road, followed it

Outward into
The dazzle going dead
Throughout the field,
Like the wobbling-down
After a wreck
Of a loose hubcap rolled along the pavement.

The stalled world
Again on its axis,
And the air
Whitening in my exhausted breath

As the whole sky drained
Through the black zero chipped into a windshield.
Having walked
All day through the roadless wood to find this lot
Full of roads,
Honeycombed with roads, at the end of roads,

I followed another road
Where even dusk had stalled, moving again
Past iron-flecked
Bowls of upturned hubcaps filled with water,
Cold and tired,
Carrying nothing with me out of there.

I made my way
Toward a battered gate ajar
In the last light;
My shadow, dying out, streaked far ahead
Into the planet's shadow,
And rambled over gravel to the gate.

The shale-colored sky
Was losing its last layered sediment
To settled dark
Where, such as it was, the usual world
Stretched out
In little better order than the yard,

An area of lights
Brightening with the present and the cold.
I felt
February tauten in the rigid metals
Contracting more:
It was the end of autumn. Branches snapped

In the sound of my shoes on glass,
And I left the rot and tangle of the wood
Far behind
As starry points of sycamore burrs
Were buried
In the smoke of the cold sky darkening.

The gravel path
Led outward to all roads beyond the fence
Marking off
The boundary of the dead afternoon. Ahead,
All paths
Are glittering with glass as I walk out.

—New York, 1985-1988

Thomas Bolt

"The Way Out of the Wood" copyright (c) 1989 by Thomas Bolt. All rights reserved.

First published in Out of the Woods, Volume 84 of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, with a foreword by James Merrill; Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1989.

Section VII of "The Way Out of the Wood" also appears in The Yale Younger Poets Anthology, edited by George Bradley, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1998

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