I remember a luminous floating breathlessness the first time I read this poem, in the dusty yellow light of the cage I worked in (a literal cage: one chainlink wall separated my gray metal desk and the cramped, brown-and-tan linoleumed room it sat in from a store-room where crippled book trucks awaited repair amid stacks of gray metal shelving and the hulks of gray metal file cabinets whose drawers were too battered to close). This was 1970. My job in the campus library was to take books from the book truck parked by my desk and type up a new catalog card for each one, using the Library of Congress (LC) call numbers from slips stuck into the books by the catalog librarian. The novelist James Michener had donated a pile of dough to build a new library up the hill from the central campus, and it would use the LC system. Work-study students like me were tasked with helping with the transition.
The variety of books I handled was remarkable, and because the librarian (her name, as I recall, was Judy Pitch) knew I was an aspiring poet, she kindly tried to make sure that I got hold of any poetry that came through for conversion. One day, Ted Hughes‘s first collection The Hawk in the Rain was there, and I devoted my lunch hour to read it through—at too fast a clip. The manuscript of the book had won The Poetry Center’s First Publication book contest, judged by Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden, and Stephen Spender—and I never got over the notion that Hughes must have been not much older than I was then when he wrote “The Thought-Fox.” (I didn’t find out until much later that he’d been four years older than I when that signature poem came to him, at age 24.) I read the poem over and over in my cage, painfully aware that I could not write anything like it and that I almost certainly never would. But it offered an illumination—the kind narcissistic young poets need most: it showed me the feeling I knew I would be looking for whenever I sat down to write.
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.