NPM Curated Poem 12: Susan Mitchell’s “The Bear”

One summer I found Susan Mitchell’s The Water Inside the Water (Wesleyan UP, 1983) at a small used bookstore in Sonora, California.  I took it back to my in-laws’ house and read the whole thing on their porch in one sitting, completely enraptured by her music and imagery.  Here’s one of my favorites, from


The Bear

Tonight the bear
comes to the orchard and, balancing
on her hind legs, dances under the apple trees,
hanging onto their boughs,
dragging their branches down to earth.
Look again. It is not the bear
but some afterimage of her
like the car I once saw in the driveway
after the last guest had gone.
Snow pulls the apple boughs to the ground.
Whatever moves in the orchard—
heavy, lumbering—is clear as wind.


The bear is long gone.
Drunk on apples,
she banged over the trash cans that fall night,
then skidded downstream. By now
she must be logged in for the winter.
Unless she is choosy.
I imagine her as very choosy,
sniffing at the huge logs, pawing them, trying
each one on for size,
but always coming out again.


Until tonight.
Tonight sap freezes under her skin.
Her breath leaves white apples in the air.
As she walks she dozes,
listening to the sound of axes chopping wood.
Somewhere she can never catch up to
trees are falling. Chips pile up like snow
When she does find it finally,
the log draws her in as easily as a forest,
and for a while she continues to see,
just ahead of her, the moon
trapped like a salmon in the ice.


I love the way the imagery from earlier in the poem shows up in that last stanza–I love that she becomes like a tree when “sap freezes under her skin,” and her “breath leaves white apples in the air.”  My very, very favorite part of this poem, though, is the last image, “the moon / trapped like a salmon in the ice.”  This figure mirrors why the bear has to hibernate in the first place–the imagery is so beautiful because it comes from the bear’s own point of view, the bear’s own imaginary system.


YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write a stanza of a narrative poem–that is, write a poem that tells a story about a character, and use as much sensory imagery as you can (using all five senses).  Then, write a final stanza that takes that sensory imagery as a metaphor for the main character, or vice versa–as the bear in this poem begins by stretching to reach the apples, she ends by being compared to a tree.  Try that kind of reversal in your poem.  Alternately, you could tell the last stanza from the character’s point of view–how would the character describe this scene in a different way from how you the poet would?

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