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 One of them made it into the (unpublished) book that was my thesis to get my MFA.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.