The Swamp Trail
by Gail Mazur
On the sand beyond the privet hedge and the sea grass and the wild roses
the sound of young men laughing, giddy girlish shrieking at the wet cold
bite of the bay. August, my white desk so near the high window, labor
and play held separate by the panes, the sea grass, the prickly hedge.
Another summer’s ritual tasks not done, or undone, while the street’s
gardens shifted from galas to graves—only a few leggy cosmos, and the timid,
almost hidden, anemones. Everything else bolted, dried, clipped. But
late summer’s dissolve isn’t my concern; no, today, it’s the swamp
I pulled my brother from—the swamp trail, just after the War, forbidden
forest route to school, old pin oak and red maple, my big brother’s
waterlogged leather shoes, his mud-soaked corduroys we feared the principal
would smell and tell on, though she never seemed to notice, so
when we came home the proper way, on sidewalks, Mother didn’t know.
Even then, Jonny and I were moving apart, or maybe just going silent:
we’ve never talked about that morning. Does the swamp, the swamp trail
ever haunt him, too—or is it only me, the thrilled collaborator,
guilty, unpunished, heroic sneak? Did I really rescue him?
What is the task not done? The trail—is that it? Where follow it?
and how? Doesn’t it always end in the same place, right behind
the lonely green Lyons playground with two boggy children,
before they’d ever heard of sex or homework, peering unnoticed
from behind rough trees, the dark primordial forest? We are done
with the work of childhood, it’s over now, isn’t it, as so much else is
finished—but still, I tell myself that Hillel says those who do not grow
grow smaller; rebuke myself, at once teacher and underachieving pupil.
An hour ago, I watched an ambulance outside my door, my neighbor’s
houseguest taken ill, I saw an old man’s fresh white sneakers,
his pale veiny legs, his faded shorts, being slid gently on a gurney
into the truck’s hold. I’m thankful I couldn’t see a terrified face or hear
the paramedics’ reassuring smooth proficiencies. I want to be through
with the unanswered needs of everyone but my darling whose body’s
been whacked by pain, by transmogrifying drugs. Have I misremembered
that once I could save someone, and did, that—braced on a rotting log
in no man’s land—it wasn’t hard to tug my skinny brother by the hand
out of the muck of dead bottom leaves, the decaying flesh of skunk cabbage,
out of the rich nutrient ooze, and back up onto our shadowy path?
Gail Mazur is the author of five books of poems,
including Zeppo’s First Wife:
New & Selected Poems, forthcoming from University of Chicago Press, 2005.
She is founding director of the Blacksmith House Poetry Series,
Distinguished Writer in Residence in Emerson College’s MFA program, and
teaches at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown’s summer program. She
lives in Cambridge with her husband, artist Michael Mazur. (1/2005)