Apr 022006

Poems often change a lot over their lives. Sometimes, they get better, and sometimes they get worse. Sometimes you revise sense into them, and sometimes you revise sounds, or beauty, or imagery. Sometimes, the sense of them inverts, changes, or just grows more mysterious over time.

This particular poem, I have two radically different drafts of. One of them made it into the (unpublished) book that was my thesis to get my MFA. The other was written during my undergrad years. They are both about the same place and the same theme, and even use some of the same language, but they don’t say the same things.

First, here’s the older version:

    Last Visit to the Poconos (1992)

    The property was going; sold over the wrangling
    of relatives who didn’t know how to use it well.
    I prowled the grass and ponds with a camera,

    determined to capture the ghost of that deer
    that died between the snows and the first thaw,
    the deer I heard pace behind me when I came near

    the spot we found it: all these dead animals in my life,
    I thought at the time, and couldn’t bear to bury it.
    The ground was hard anyway, we didn’t have the time.

    The dock was shot up and there was snakeskin shed
    in the sailboat. Hunters had trespassed. The pond’s
    drainpipe had clogged until the creek barely had its bed

    filled with burbling and moss. With trees bent over
    like a tunnel roof, I walked in. The exposed rocks blossomed
    from close up, with spring and fairies and scents of lovers.

    I took a shot of the bank from two inches away: a city
    of green, a deer track and dropping looming
    in the foreground. I was trudging back to the cabin when it hit me:

    I needed one more picture as I closed the door: the lodge
    itself, with the instant photos dumped haphazard,
    like a hunted deer, in the trunk of the heatless car.

Ah, the serial colon, gotta love it. On the other hand, gotta not love “spring and faeries and scents of lovers.” Ugh.

Here’s the newer version:

    Last Visit to the Poconos (1995)

    The dock’s shot up — hunters — and snakeskin
    twists dry under the sailboat’s seat.
    I hold the old Polaroid camera to my face, cutting
    charcoal branches from trees, framing
    the curving pond.
                               Drainpipe is clogged,
    leaves and matted pine needles. Where the mouth
    reaches the pond surface there is a hole
    in the water, drilled down through corrugated metal.
    Water lips the drain, slips inside, settles.
    Somewhere a photograph captures it all.

    The creek that drains the pond runs low.
    I step down the bank, into the burbling and moss.
    Water sheets over the concrete dam so steadily
    it still looks frozen.
                               The property is going;
    relatives wrangled it away. It hardly looks
    like something owned — the lodge itself
    is hidden. Trees bend over the stream listening
    to the whir of the camera as it spits out a picture.
    I keep thinking I hear a deer pace behind me —
    nothing there, no ghost to capture.

    Finally, the bank from two inches away:
    the plants and moss large like an empty city,
    a deer track and dropping looming
    large in the foreground. The broad leaves
    of some plant I can’t name curve over the grass
    and give enormous shade.

Ah, no more faeries, and instead a deer dropping. Much better. But I miss the ending of the original.

The differing tones of the poem, the way the lodge itself goes from present to barely there by the second version, probably reflect the fact that more time had elapsed since I had been there and the status of it was still being wrangled over. Which is what makes this particular Sunday Poem timely — here we are, 14 years from the first poem, and it’s still being “wrangled over by relatives.” But I hear that it might finally get sold.

If I wrote it again now, I would probably spend less time on the outside, the dead deer carcass, the snakeskin, the metaphors of being taken over by wilderness and anarchy, and more time on the inside: the wood surfaces, the way you had to practically vacuum-seal the beds to keep them from being mice hotels, the big ol’ fireplace and the way the windows faced the ponds. Instead of having the warm spot recede in memory, I’d probably choose to keep it more present, and let the wilderness be the thing outside that is kept at bay.

  3 Responses to “The Sunday Poem: Last Visit to the Poconos”

  1. […] Comments […]

  2. Writing poetry and writing code have a fair amount in common. A fanatical attention to detail is important in both disciplines; you can write fifty lines of poetry or code, and 49 of them can be perfect, but a misplaced comma in the last line can ruin the intended effect.

    Clarity, brevity, and precision are usually prized in programs and poems. At their highest level, people who labor in these fields pursue a certain elegance in their syntax.

    Easter eggs, too; there’s a lot of stuff tucked away, nested into innocuous text, waiting to be discovered. 90% of the audience will never notice it, but it’s in there, waiting patiently for that special 10% if they take the time to seek it.

    I’m not sure how much hand-coding you do these days, Raph, but I suspect that all those years of poetry school instilled habits and perspectives in you which continue to serve you well.

  3. One of the best bits of revision advice I ever got for poetry was to go through and remove every word that didn’t need to be there. You can cut a good 25% of flab very quickly that way. 🙂

    I actually have gotten back into doing hand coding a lot lately.

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