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The Testing-Tree


On my way home from school
up tribal Providence Hill
past the Academy ballpark
where I could never hope to play
I scuffed in the drainage ditch
among the sodden seethe of leaves
hunting for perfect stones
rolled out of glacial time
into my pitcher’s hand;
then sprinted lickety-
split on my magic Keds
from a crouching start,
scarcely touching the ground
with my flying skin
as I poured it on
for the prize of the mastery
over that stretch of road,
with no one no where to deny
when I flung myself down
that on the given course
I was the world’s fastest human.
2 Around the bend that tried to loop me home dawdling came natural across a nettled field riddled with rabbit-life where the bees sank sugar-wells in the trunks of the maples and a stringy old lilac more than two stories tall blazing with mildew remembered a door in the long teeth of the woods.
All of it happened slow: brushing the stickseed off, wading through jewelweed strangled by angel’s hair, spotting the print of the deer and the red fox’s scats.
Once I owned the key to an umbrageous trail thickened with mosses where flickering presences gave me right of passage as I followed in the steps of straight-backed Massassoit soundlessly heel-and-toe practicing my Indian walk.
3 Past the abandoned quarry where the pale sun bobbed in the sump of the granite, past copperhead ledge, where the ferns gave foothold, I walked, deliberate, on to the clearing, with the stones in my pocket changing to oracles and my coiled ear tuned to the slightest leaf-stir.
I had kept my appointment.
There I stood int he shadow, at fifty measured paces, of the inexhaustible oak, tyrant and target, Jehovah of acorns, watchtower of the thunders, that locked King Philip’s War in its annulated core under the cut of my name.
Father wherever you are I have only three throws bless my good right arm.
In the haze of afternoon, while the air flowed saffron, I played my game for keeps-- for love, for poetry, and for eternal life-- after the trials of summer.
4 In the recurring dream my mother stands in her bridal gown under the burning lilac, with Bernard Shaw and Bertie Russell kissing her hands; the house behind her is in ruins; she is wearing an owl’s face and makes barking noises.
Her minatory finger points.
I pass through the cardboard doorway askew in the field and peer down a well where an albino walrus huffs.
He has the gentlest eyes.
If the dirt keeps sifting in, staining the water yellow, why should I be blamed? Never try to explain.
That single Model A sputtering up the grade unfurled a highway behind where the tanks maneuver, revolving their turrets.
In a murderous time the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
Where is my testing-tree? Give me back my stones!

Poem by Stanley Kunitz
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