From the Archives

To a Friend in Time of Trouble

Thom Gunn

You wake tired, in the cabin light has filled,
Then walk out to the deck you helped to build,
And pause, your senses reaching out anxiously,
Tentatively, toward scrub and giant tree:
A giving of the self instructed by 
The dog who settles near you with a sigh
And seeks you in your movements, following each.
Though yours are different senses, they too reach
Until you know that they engage the air
The clean and penetrable medium where
You encounter as if they were a sort of home
Fountains of fern that jet from the coarse loam.

You listen for the quiet, but hear instead
A sudden run of cries break overhead,
And look to see a wide-winged bird of prey
Between the redwood tops carrying away 
Some small dark bundle outlined in its claws. 
The certainty, the ease with which it draws
Its arc on blue... Oh but the calls you heard
Came from the bundle, that small captive bird.
      Soon then the gouging, the protesting shriek,
The gorging from the breast, the reddened beak,
The steadying claw withdrawn at last. You know
It is not cruel, it is not human, though
You cringe who would not feel surprised to find
Such lacerations made by mind on mind.

Later, the job, you haul large stones uphill.
You intend to pile them in a wall which will,
In front of plantings and good dirt, retain
Through many a winter of eroding rain.
Hard work and tiring, but the exercise
Opens the blood to air and simplifies
The memory of your troubles in the city,
Until you view them unconfused by pity.

A handsome grey-haired, grey-eyed man, tight-knit;
Each muscle clenching as you call on it 
From the charmed empire of your middle age.
You move about your chores: the grief and rage
You brought out here begin at last to unbind.
And all day as you climb, the released mind
Unclenches till—the moment of release
Clean overlooked in the access of its own peace—
It finds that it has lost itself upon
The smooth red body of a young madrone,
From which it turns toward other varying shades
On the brown hillside where light grows and fades,
And feels the healing start, and still returns,
Riding its own repose, and learns, and learns.

Thom Gunn was an Anglo-American poet. His collections include The Man with Night Sweats (1992).
Originally published:
July 1, 1985

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