In the Mirror

By Peter Halstead

Cutting a trail in our woods one day
(Actually not our domains,
Though no one else would know the way
Through the dense terrain’s
Rank fen),

Each linden, so we thought, a friend,
The branches ours alone,
(We’d memorized each bend
In the lane, every stone—
In vain,

It turned out—), but how
Fleeting ownership
When forces allow
An impossible slip
(A veritable

Crash) into a trail
Other than ours,
An extraterrestrial swale
(Other powers
Must have grazed it)—

If only a maze
Of our own design,
A terra nova that displays
Us as blind
And, maybe, rude.

Any rendezvous
By nature wants
The self in view:
The pioneer who haunts
And repossesses,

So when we mistake
The route’s high abacus
For something we ourselves make,
We find just a xerox of us,

Veer without clues
Into the strangest of places,
And meet ourselves chez nous
When the world appears
To agree with our faces.


In Bedford between 1981 and 1989, I spent some ten years cutting trails in the neighboring forest. It wasn’t our land; we had never met the owners. There was no house, just woods. Our street in North Castle was a tunnel of wild woodlands without houses.

I wrote many poems out of the time I spent cutting trails in those woods. I used hand clippers and a hand saw, so no ungainly tokens of the industrial revolution disturbed my seventeenth-century fantasy of bucolic breezes rustling through the leaves. The trails were narrow and unkempt by design, as overly compulsive trimming leads to erosion and the loss of midsummer magic, those untidy English tendrils and their rampant associated underbrush.

One day my heart sank when I came across someone else’s trail. Suddenly I wasn’t alone. The majesty of my isolation dissolved, until I realized a few minutes later that I had doubled back across my own trail. I was my own rival.

Although I fancied myself a woodsman, a navigator, a personal connoisseur of each branch, I realized then that I knew my trails only as they related to a few obvious landmarks. I was no match for the vastness of the forest, the complexity of simple sprigs. Of course this pointed out to me my own vast imposture at feeling equal with nature, at being on a presumptive footing with a twig.

I didn’t write this poem until March 22nd, 2001, in Lake Creek in Edwards, Colorado, some fifteen years later. I finished it the morning of March 25th. I made a few minor changes in the next hour, thus proving to myself the wisdom of waiting as long as it takes until a poem is ready, and then waiting some more.

I felt unsatisfied with my initial ab-ab rhymes. I needed more of a sense of transition, so I added an extra line, which flows into the next stanza. This added a conversation between the stanzas, and made the rhythm more informal than the visual pattern would imply. That is, it can be read as prose, with only distant inner music.

Tippet Alley
March 25th, 2001