Poetry

The Coming of Age

Henry Sloss

West of the handsome house the land descends
sharply, levels off in a broad flood plain
above Antietam Creek, and then becomes
its sheared-steep bank. The house and land are mine.
For three or four days following the battle
the Creek ran red, from thousands wounded, dead.

For twenty years I’ve felt uncomfortable
about the property, tried to evade
the implications of my privilege
(and the absurdity of “owning” land)
by thinking of myself as its caretaker.
And yet it sometimes felt as if I had
blood on my hands. Whose I couldn’t say.

Perhaps my father’s since I bought the place,
a very costly home away from home,
with money left me when he died, bequeathed
in part as a reward for good behavior:
a house of glass and redwood, cedar roofed,
surrounded by mown grounds and ornamentals,
perched on eleven acres rich in oak
and sycamore, black walnut, locust, pine,
a purchase he’d have said was “worth the money.”

What would he think if he could see it now?
Most of the flowering shrubs have withered, died,
the lawns become scrub-riddled, waist-high meadow,
the bottom land along the Creek impassable.
The house itself suffers from age – warped siding,
loose molding, moss-eaten shakes, pest-pocked porch…
“problems” proliferating like the stinkbugs.
He’d have been disappointed, not surprised.
“You cannot stand success,” he told me once.

For years I mowed, cleared paths along the Creek,
pulled wild grape from the trees, cut back thorn-brake
and bramble, poison ivy, stinging nettle;
gardened within ten-foot-tall, deer-proof fencing
put in post-hole by staple with a neighbor;
took on woodchuck, woodpecker, borer bee;
cut, hauled, split wood for stove and fireplaces …

I loved the work, the challenges to strength
and stamina, and wit, until I didn’t.
Just when that was, if “when” is the right word,
I can’t recall, but I began to notice
that what I couldn’t do I left undone.

For some time say, I tried to keep up with
the handsome house’s and the land’s demands,
to keep up – and to live up to – the place.
In different ways each proved too much for me,
as in a third the place was when I bought it.
(Now it’s for sale that’s what I tell myself,
eliding hours, seasons of happiness
at simply being able to be there.)

To someone like my father I’m afraid
the shape the place is in, unkempt, unruly,
a sort of mirror-image of its owner,
would argue that I’d “trashed” it, meant to take
the glitz if not the guilt from privilege.
If true, that might be preferable to feeling
the degradation inadvertent, helpless,
as bound to be as anyone’s descent
from youthful heights to the floodplain of age.

It’s not dishonorable to get old,
embarrassing at times, but nothing worse,
and look at how age leads to self-acceptance –
unprepossessing though that self may be –
almost as readily as to the Creek.

Henry Sloss is the author of two books of poems: The Threshold of the New and Blue Ridge Pie.
Originally published:
November 1, 2017

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