Tent Caterpillars

By Susan Mitchell

for Nathaniel, 1900—1968

All afternoon you worked at cutting them down.
Branch after branch tossed
into the heap. You had your ceremony. Old pants. The pipe.
The pipe rested in the cleft of the tree.
When the pile got big enough, you threw the kerosene.

Now the woods are clouded again. You forgot
the world could be this messy.
Air thickens into leaves, the leaves into worms.
Behind the barn, overnight, it seems,
tents have spread out in the apple trees.

There’s work for you. So you come back
in your pants old as dirt. With a pipe heavy as stone.
No time to lose. Whatever is rotten,
whatever won’t hold the weight of another season,
you hack down. There’s one moment, though,

when you feel almost sorry for them.
The tents break into flame and the small, black
pieces of anguish crawl
out into the grass. Those that get away, well,
you let them get away this time.

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