“Life in the Woods”
Click the arrow on the audio player to hear Doug Ramspeck read this poem. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.
In my uncle’s diary of symptoms, light
is described as washed-out moon color.
Color as winter fields: gray sky, gray earth.
Shapes forming of their own volition,
strange geometries of line, lacquered splotches
coalescing then disappearing. He blamed
decades of wind, dust kicking up, grit catching
and congealing—or witnessing a younger
brother dying slowly from metastatic brain tumors.
Eventually the pages of the diary dissolved
for him into dark hallways, so I transcribed
the symptoms for the doctor, a task that reminded
me of high school when I copied out long passages
from Walden: whip-poor-wills chanting their vespers,
fluviatile trees, the ceaseless roar and pelting
of rainstorms. At 16 I gave my lone copy—
spine fissured, pages bent back and loose from
their moorings—to a girl I hoped would understand
so take note, but she returned the book in less
than an hour to say, I wouldn’t ever live like that.
Which I recalled the August morning I arrived
at my uncle’s farm to find him on his front porch,
a compendium of crows calling from the willows
by the wire fence. The old man was sitting on a lawn
chair with nothing but his quietude, his face dark
and obdurate, stoic with years. He looked up
with emptied eyes as my shoes creaked the front step—
here is what the dark brooms have swept away—and not
until my voice was familiar in the air did he rise
from his chair and gesture me into his house.