Poem of the week: Sleeping Out by Jane Routh

A snowy night camped out under the stars provides the stage for a close encounter with a mysterious creature

badger footprints in snow.
‘Some moist muzzle / had leaned close by my head // breathing my breath” … badger footprints in snow. Photograph: Alamy

Sleeping Out

No wind in the pines —
I didn’t believe the forecast
yet pulled my bivvy bag
part-way under the awning
where I could still see the stars.

When I woke, it had snowed
a light coverlet on me; more
— say two inches — on the ground
and melting already
so the tracks of a creature

which had stalked round
my unknowing body
were hard to decipher,
their indents collapsing:
four-toed I thought —

a fox’s most likely
or were the prints wider,
the tread of a wildcat?
Some moist muzzle
had leaned close by my head

breathing my breath
and eavesdropping dreams
while taking my measure
along and back then around
— much the same as the way

I might sniff at a spraint
or track deer-slots
to a lair, as if I might
bed down too, try out
how the world feels from there.

This week’s poem is from Jane Routh’s quietly compelling fourth collection, Listening to the Night. Routh is based in north-west England, where she manages an area of woodland. Her poetry is firmly located in the specific, reflecting the complicated reality of rural life and the difficulty as well as the pleasures inherent in living responsibly with “nature”. As the prize-winning poem, One Place, puts it, “When you’ve lived all your adult life in one place, / You fell trees. You planted them too close / or blocked the view or some sickened.”

Central to Sleeping Out is an exciting physical experience, whose narrative enfolds a concern with the relationship between knowledge and instinct. The narrator, who the poem shows to be experienced in the practicalities of field trips and animal tracking, begins with recounting a moment’s instinctive scepticism; she “didn’t believe the forecast” – presumably, a forecast of snow – as she set up camp. However, she arranged her outdoors bed as if distrusting her distrust, or subliminally sensing that, yes, maybe there was a promise of snow in the windless air.

The result seems to have been a compromise, with the protection of the “bivvy bag” and a sufficiently untrammelled view of the stars. The weather forecast turns out to have been right, and Routh’s narrative quietly recreates the excitement of discovering the overnight snowfall. To wake up under its “light coverlet” is to have got close to nature in a thrilling, potentially risky way. Routh is circumspect but, imagining her experience, readers may shiver and also envy the heightened level of consciousness gained by sleeping under the snow and the stars.

There’s a further level of discovery in the poem: the mysterious animal tracks left encircling the sleeper’s bed. Like the snowfall, the tracks could have signified a physical threat. But they happened beyond human awareness, and no harm has occurred. It’s as if the sleeper’s safety were somehow guaranteed by unconsciousness.

The intelligent human, wide awake, is of course required to “read” the footprints. “Indents” is an interesting word-choice here, suggesting the typographical device and the prints in the snow. Interpretation of the tracks is inconclusive. Mentally, the poet is circling round a question – fox or wildcat? – as the creature she imagines circled around her sleeping form. As in the recently featured poem To Tartar, a Terrier Beauty by Thomas Lovell Beddoes, there’s the suggestion of wordless forms of knowledge. “Some moist muzzle / had leaned close by my head // breathing my breath / and eavesdropping dreams / while taking my measure / along and back then around.” There’s also a suggestion of shared animal-human consciousness in the exchange of warm breath and the “eavesdropping” on dreams. There’s no doubt that, simply by listening to the breathing and watching the movements of a sleeping creature, dream-emotions such as fear or pleasure can often be discerned. Perhaps other animals, too, possesses this basic capacity for sensing dreams, even those of a different species?

In the last stanza, the hunter’s almost-instinctive tracking skills are deployed: “spraints” (otter’s dung) are sniffed, deer slots (tracks) are seen and followed. But this isn’t a hunt, and the poem’s tracks lead to the possibility of the narrator’s changing places with the animal “as if I might / bed down too, try out / how the world feels from there”. There a likably “level” quality to the poem, present in its tone and rhythm, in the sparing use of rhyme, in the balance of knowing and sensing. It moves as softly as the overnight snow and the “moist muzzle” of the creature who performed its quiet survey and moved on. The snow soon melts, and the tracks begin to disappear. Although an eco-warning is subtly sounded in the poem, cohabitation between species seems to be viewed as a warm and workable miracle.