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Kelly's Woods

Text of Poem

Kelly’s Woods—our picnic grounds
on the banks of the Red Cedar River
five miles northwest of town.
The Beaver Valley Livestock Farm
opened its gates for us and we
drove along the fields past
Railroad Lake until we reached
the river. We tied our horses and
parked our cars outside the fence
and crawled through to a glade
open to the river, a forest of
tall trees at our backs. We built
fires to heat fried chicken and
coffee, we kids toasted marshmallows.
The whole family traipsed up there
several times each summer: aunts,
uncles, cousins, stray guests who
happened to be visitors.

Kelly’s Woods—our doctor uncles
made us wait an hour after dinner
to go swimming. We waded out from
a long, sloping sandbar. If you cut
your foot it was on a clam shell,
not a beer can. My cousin wore
silk stockings and pulled up
her dress to show me her garters.
At fourteen I burned with the
fires of lust but when I sneaked
her off among the trees and we
lay hidden all I could do was
to ask her if she liked fish.

Kelly’s Woods—too far up the river
for boaters but once a canoe slid by
with two young sprouts and their girls.
They spied my mother and aunt sitting
on the bank and called out vulgar names.
My uncle stepped out of the trees and
threw a chunk of wood in the water beside
the canoe. It splashed and soaked them
and they turned nasty and headed for the
shore to “beat the hell out of him.”
But Lauritz, our hired man, who always
went on our picnics, had been target
shooting and stepped up with a rifle
in the crook of his arm. In his Danish
accent he said, “Ay tink you go now.”
And they did.

Kelly’s Woods—a kingfisher watched us
from a dead branch, a snake swam across
the river, head daintily erect,
butterflies hovered over the water.
We saw a hawk and called it an eagle
and wrestled each other to prove
we were right. We broke crusts
of fungus from a stump and built
an altar to burn as sacrifice
a frog we caught. But my uncle called us
barbarians and we let the frog go.

Kelly’s Woods—suddenly it was time
to go home. Tired, dazed with food,
sun and water we carried the baskets
to the fence and shouted good-bye, good-bye.
The woods aren’t there anymore, maybe
they never were. We aren’t there either,
scattered to city offices, retirement
homes, snug under headstones, memories
like darkened shadows of Kelly’s Woods.

First Line
Kelly’s Woods—our picnic grounds
Original Pub Location
Original Publication Date
Original Citation
Time Like a Furrow: Essays. Ames, IA: Iowa State Historical Department. 1981. xi-xii.
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