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A Dream Sestina

dreamed late 1950s? by Donald Justice

I woke by first light in a wood
Right in the shadow of a hill
And saw about me in a circle
Many I knew, the dear faces
Of some I recognized as friends.
I knew that I had lost my way.

I asked if any knew the way.
They stared at me like blocks of wood.
They turned their backs on me, those friends,
And struggled up the stubborn hill
Along that road which makes a circle.
No longer could I see their faces.

But there were trees with human faces.
Afraid, I ran a little way
But must have wandered in a circle.
I had not left that human wood;
I was no farther up the hill.
And all the while I heard my friends

Discussing me, but not like friends.
Through gaps in trees I glimpsed their faces.
(The trees grow crooked on that hill.)
Now all at once I saw the way.
Above a clearing in the wood
A lone bird wheeling in a circle,

And in that shadowed space the circle
Of those I thought of still as friends.
I drew near, calling, and the wood
Rang, and they turned their deaf faces
This way and that, but not my way.
They rose and danced upon the hill.

And it grew dark. Behind the hill
The sun slid down, a fiery circle.
Screeching, the bird flew on its way.
It was too dark to see my friends.
But then I saw them, and their faces
Were leaning above me like a wood.

Round me they circle on the hill.
But what is wrong with my friends' faces?
Why have they changed that way to wood?


This poem was published in Justice's The Summer Anniversaries in 1960, so the dream is probably from the fifties, but it could be even earlier; Collected Poems, my source, lacks notes for this particular piece. His only dream-inspired poem? ("Bad Dreams" isn't.) Atypical in subject, but his treatment's the same as (say) his reminiscences of small-town afternoons: simple low-key language, stately rhythm, keen awareness of light and shadow and mood.

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