Stick Woods

By Peter Halstead

Dear father, please accept
This my own erector set,

A harmless forest set in mud—
Nothing here to burst or bud—

But to a rootless child an omen
Of the twisted gates of heaven,

Where the desiccated landscape talks
Of used Thanksgiving husks and stalks,

Its only sense of shrunken self
The pumpkin on the classroom shelf,

A world so utterly misguided
That only coming snow could hide it,

Fields so empty, soil so cracked
Above our stricken housing tract

That only winter’s frozen sweep
Could put my fallen woods to sleep.

October 8th, 2008

Tippet Alley
December 21st, 2008


When I was around six I spent the day on Captain Merritt’s Hill, a drumlin disguised by the houses of our neighborhood which, once “turned,” as climbers say, revealed a scraggly cap of krummholz, of twisted stems and diseased, moss-clad boles, dying nodes, and thorny brush that completed our equally moribund neighborhood, with its raggedy assortment of outmoded architectural styles and scootering children whom time had passed by, and who even now in my memory feel misplaced, out of the wrong century.
Krummholz is reaction wood, misshapen by its reaction to wind or snow or soil, and, although we might consider it troll-like or elfin, it is the mechanism that shapes every branch in its fight with shade and air. This fractal collaboration with the elements is the same random perfection we see in lightning or river deltas. We are surrounded with its bent beauty, while unconsciously scared of its nonconformist gnarl. But, in fact, it is closer to the world around it than the rigid, blind trunk, whose leaves are its eyes, whose twigs twine and die that its ivory tower be untouched by anything but earth, as poets instinctively protect themselves against any accidental and undeserved environment (parents, siblings, friends).
I was quite impressed by the proximity to all of our suburban trivialities of this riven wilderness. But it wasn’t a brave or inspiring place. It was broken by the weight of its own location, so close to humanity. There was no trail, no sense of being loved, or used. It was totally forgotten, invisible to its own natural audience. It wasn’t leafy, or comforting, or silent. It was weird and devastated, like the Blair Witch woods or a nuclear winter. I never went back, despite later life spent craving solitude and mountains. Years later there was a Gormenghast-like computer game called Riven.
I did make a small model of it, an homage to its weirdness, which I gave my father as a Christmas present. It was about two feet square, a small paper stage over cardboard, into which I had stuck twigs from those blasted woods, and strewn pebbles and a bit of dirt. I’m sure my father thought I was deranged. I was quite proud of it, but in retrospect it copied exactly the strange void of that wasteland, our communal high swamp.
So I suppose it was my first poem. Strangeness translated. Woods glued to wood byproducts. Atmosphere made man. Trees grounded. Air unearthed. Orcs flushed out of the woods, along with the Moiety, the Eloi, the Morlocks, all of us, our messy roots exposed.