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An Exmoor Tale

Summer 2017 - Vol. 59, No. 3

 

This poem appears in the Summer 2017 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


The Achievement and Stewardship of David Middleton

In “Winter in July,” David Middleton writes of “Still basking in retirement’s early days.” After nearly a decade, Middleton has retired as the poetry editor for Modern Age. The author of four critically acclaimed collections of verse, he stands out as one of the great contemporary poets of the American South, one who has earned a faithful readership simply by producing profound, finely wrought poems at a modest but steady pace. Like his late friend the poet and critic John Finlay (whose collected works he is now editing), Middleton’s work shows the influence of two great poets from an earlier generation: Yvor Winters and Allen Tate. From Winters, Middleton has inherited a gift for the clear, rational statement formed to a taut metrical line; from Tate, he has gained a vision of the South as an essentially religious culture at once cursed and challenged by its history of slavery and the war fought to end it. Like both poets, he is a writer of place who, from the first poem in The Burning Fields (1991) onward, has sought to delineate the eternal form of things within the particulars of provincial life. —James Matthew Wilson

An Exmoor Tale
by
David Middleton

Toward dawn he made his way by bay and cliff
Into the Brendon Hills, journeying west
On through the Quantocks to collect a debt
From one who had ignored his many bills.

In town he had a shop with staple goods
And out of town a farm whose meats and greens
He sold with flour sifted from his grains
All native to a world he loved and knew.

And so he rode across the summer moors
With heather, ling, and whortleberry decked
Glimpsing the elusive roe deer and the red
At daybreak in the distant hillside mist.

He knew the birds as well, by habit, name,
The scrub’s grasshopper warbler, bred in heath,
Redpolls that nest on moorland edges deep
In sessile oaks, and, by the channel bays,
Snow buntings, ospreys, egrets, harriers
All fishing while long swells salted the caves.
It was a realm of settled elements
Where things had stake and place and debts were paid.

At dusk, and after pushing mile on mile
For hours intent on justice, recompense,
Fair dealing, and the holding to one’s word
He reached at last an isolated farm,
Ill-tended, where his debtor could be heard
Behind that door on which the traveler knocked.

Slowly the door was opened and he gazed
Upon a face angelic yet distressed,
With eyes like wells of light but in a haze,
Skin pale against the dark brown feathery hair.

The man who came would enter a strange room
The other kept in twilight, candles, faint,
Illumining a pen, chair, table, page,
An empty glass still smelling of strong drink
And something else, some flavoring spice, or drug.

The two men spoke alone an hour or more,
Yet still the bills remained, though credit stopped,
And he who traveled far to balance books
Gave up on one he could not understand.

Not pressing on toward town as night arrived
He headed for his farmstead closer by,
And there, as he had left them—hives and pens,
The bees and cows, and, in the heeded fields,
Green wheat just turning golden toward the fall.

The next day he wrote off the unpaid debt
And lived on toiling as he always had
In intimate blood kinship with the land.
Years later someone showed him that small book
In which the debtor blamed him for a poem
Whose birth he’d interrupted with his knock.

And there he read of things he could not know
Except by correlation to the world
He nurtured as its substance nurtured him:
A holy river like the river Exe
Rising at Exe Head, flowing south through shale,
Unmeasured caverns Bristol bays’ deep caves
Below Great Hangman Cliff, an eastern mount
Dunkery Beacon, mystic honey-milk
Those hives and cows he tended long before
He’d be The Man from Porlock evermore.