Letter to America: One Poem by Cynthia Huntington

Letter to America by Cynthia Huntington

One Poem

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Deer in a Gated Park

Wild gardens overlooked by night lights…
                                – Barbara Guest


Bare woods’ sky scrolled by snow. Grey car
under the window, scrolled by snow.
Beyond, three hundred acres of forest,
trees vertical and slant, straight lines
displacing perspective, rendering a grid,
a vista scrolled by snow.

The imagination wanders, lost in this
resurrected wilderness, second-growth forest,
hardwood and pine staggered with stone walls
built by settlers: colonials self-transplanted,
sheep farmers and builders of barns.

Consider the organization of a tree
whose structure is mathematical–
a pattern producing green.
Trees in woods producing trees,
aspiring upward, more vertical than lush,
overreaching themselves toward light.
How the world keeps finding its way
back to its first self, its one or two ideas
called root and seed. Leaves made from leaves,
one code that raises forest out of earth.

I pace the large, light-filled room
whose windows offer a landscape beyond touch,
a sense of cold awakened in the mind
by a view of snowy woods, dusk falling
into the spaces between things
and nesting there. In the room, a couch,
a red carpet woven with geometric figures,
a piano shining, all dark wood and polished gleam,
white teeth of keys.

Beside the great stone hearth, beneath the mirrored
mantle, a stack of firewood with sharp edges,
logs freshly split, pale inside. Green wood.
The blaze in the great fireplace
licking up in little flames. I have built the fire
with wood piled in a box by my door,
left there at morning, with kindling of paper and sticks.

The piano is silent. I place my fingers on words,
counting weights and tones on a page.
The red carpet with figures that are geometric,
not representing nature, the faithful would say,
as if anything were not nature. All culture
and history gathers in this room: its glass and wood,
its cushions and table, the books with their marks
that stand for sounds and pictures in the mind,
and snow gently scrolling past high windows.


The deer come at dusk and bend to the pine boughs.
Space opens around them with every step.
Imagining they are free,
they are free. Their part always
to step through the membrane, to reveal
there is no membrane, and no stepping through.

Tracks in fresh snow appear to lead
from one place to the next, as if to mark
a record of progress, a path occasioned
by circumstance and small moments of choice.
Accident of prints and accident of snow,
the sound of a plow scraping the road.

Once they would put a mark on the trees
that were tall and straight enough for ships’ masts.
This meant the tree was owned by the king.
What we understood of tree then, how it appeared to us,
was changed. The element of comparison enters,
a judgment of ends, so that to see a tree now

is perhaps to imagine voyages:
wooden ships, or timbers sawed to planks.
The king’s table sanded to a gloss, fenestration
embellished with carvings, all furbishes of rank
and circumstance, ceremony of majesty that must
be imagined before it can exist, this mind-
created order made real. Mystery, that we had a king
and then did not. How he was imagined into being
and named sacred, a way of holding an idea
which might fall away if it were not held strongly
beyond mind, somehow appointed, ordained.

If a tree is property of the king,
we may assume a kingdom.
Stone walls, and sheep grazing cleared land.
The deer lie down in the pines,
or they wander under trees, inside a membrane
that moves with them, owning themselves.
We cannot feel what they know, the unbounded space
before each step. The king’s deer
the peasant must not hunt on pain of death.
His park enclosing space, his kingship foreclosing
margins. The king, the central mind,
great ego without whose order we wander
no longer as animals, made strangers here,imagining.


Here is what I would say of the imagination:
that one thing disappears into another,
a lineage of similitude, repetition of ideas
reiterating the first act. Leaves made from leaves,
one code that raises forest out of earth. Yet we create
transformation, an alchemy of difference
with our questions, inserting what is not
into the is— our ambition a secret charge.

But perhaps I have mistaken the question
and you are not looking for something made
and strange-cornered in the mind, but rather
some lush utterance, a lyric unleash,
as in night gardens lit by desire,
fragrant strange flowers leaned down to whisper
secret fount. Something awaiting us,
some destiny given, to be discovered and entered whole.

Not this unmoving scene of woods
and scroll of snow, of which we make
what we will. I think you are wishing
for something that doesn’t require making,
the sought-after thing the mind knows
as an animal knows, following a scent through woods,
through dark drawn on. What calls us out,
what we call after…


Here a triptych of windows partitioned in squares,
glass and muntins, frame after frame repeating,
a grid laid over the woods, their wilds darkening beyond.
Dusk. I turn to the window, then to another window,
facing east, then north. I am beginning to see nothing
beyond this room with its high ceiling and the fire
burning in a grate, the tree consumed by air,
its sunlight heat released, rendering sap-juice
to blister and char. Crack and snap of small branches,
burning, and the roar of a car on the road below
breaking the dream of refuge. I did not see the cars
until their lights flashed through the trees.
I was imagining wilderness, yet world was here,
its history and making. Abraham’s sheep on the hillside,
the forests of Judah cut for ship’s timbers.
Deer grazing on pine boughs as night falls. Snow
scrolling past darkening branches, blurred in snow light.


Deer in a gated park moving freely
inside the king’s imagined wilderness.
Their tracks will melt, without meaning
except as we follow them. We read the past,
the way the deer has gone, not where it is going.

The table, a fire, a book of maps.
The map is drawn after the journey;
those otherwise conceived are useless,
fantastic with dragons, whirlpools, and djinns.

If nothing, no direction, was intended,
if no meaning was thought of, we say
we were following something ordained.
If not destiny then a natural order.
The question seemed to go on opening forever.
I could not find its dimensions.

Because I did not see the gate I wandered free
and made the world inside my mind.
The seed in the tree, the seed in the earth,
the tree inside the earth, and all the earth within.
One mystery of repeating: reiteration of form,
the moment made again, remade.

When the windows were transparent, made of light,
their spaces opening vision, when the threshold
was invisible, I believed I was free. The world
continuous, a membrane interpenetrating, one realm
breathed into another. Then, gazing mastered space
though I looked from a frame made of wood
and glass, from a place built for shelter.

Prints mark snow as snow falls to fill them,
and stone walls are rebuilt
though the sheep are gone, sold away
to other farms, their lineage continued,
their blood not lost though changed
by time, absorbed like salt in water, become real.

When the deer walk out of the frame
that holds our knowing, they are gone.
The grid dissolved, each kingdom perishing.
And still like sensors, we feel them ahead of us,
our subtle instruments, pulsed ahead into dark.
They send back signals, too faint to read,
from worlds never reached by mind.




Cynthia HuntingtonCynthia Huntington is the Frederick Sessions Beebe Professor in Writing at Dartmouth, where she has taught English and creative writing since 1988. A 2016 Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry, she has published six books of poetry as well as a prose memoir. Her most recent publication, a polyphonic book-length poem titled Terra Nova (Southern Illinois University Press, 2017) focuses on exile and migration through western history. Her 2012 collection, Heavenly Bodies, was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry.
Read three poems by Cynthia Huntington previously appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo of snowy woods by Finmiki, courtesy Pixabay.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.