- Stephen Altman
The Woods at Night
I lived alone for awhile, earlier this past decade, in a three-room cabin in the West Virginia woods across the Shenandoah River from Harpers Ferry. A couple of times a year I'd go to Italy, mostly to Rome, and spent many an afternoon on a bench by the grave of John Keats.
When I wasn't in Rome I was back here in the States and alone in that cabin. I can't say how many nights I sat at the kitchen table with my sonnets, which refused to write themselves and insisted that I do it, regardless of the deep well of lonely panic that presented. Outdoors it was black and there were forest sounds--crickets and cicadas and frogs and an owl that sounded like a Kong-sized chimpanzee and innumerable shufflings through the trees that you'd swear were the local meth dealers on the run from the Jefferson County sheriff. It was a Phil Spector-level wall of forest sound. And it was just me and my laptop and all these unwritten sonnets.
I'd been inspired to write them on my first visit to Keats's grave, in the spring of 2011. Think of clamorous cosmopolitan Rome, then think of the dirt-road-down-to-the-river boondocks to which I returned after that trip and each of the trips that followed. It was a kind of semi-annual commute in which I carried, entirely in my head, the makings of this verse novel that had no title but would someday be Blues for the Muse. I discovered that your head--or my head, at least--is like the woods at night. You don't know where the sonnets are, or even the makings of the sonnets, but they're in there somewhere and you'll have to wander in the noisy dark to find them.
After a year and a half in that cabin--by which time I was giving names to the squirrels and the crows cawed hello when they saw me out walking--I went exploring and found Shepherdstown. I settled here, and a mere six years later finished the book. Because of the pandemic I haven't been back to Rome since 2019. These days, when I take a walk, I run into friends with their dogs rather than startled whitetail deer or the occasional gaggle of wild turkeys. It's a lot less lonely. But when the day and the socializing are done, with the silence of this lovely little burg outside the window, I am still alone at the table with my laptop. Something new wants to get written and here I am again, in the woods at night.
The snapshot is of those woods by day--that's the road down to the river--back in 2012.