Hear Michael Hettich read his “Nature Poem” here.
Running time: 3 minutes and 8 seconds. File size: 2.6 megabytes.
I’m wondering how to fill it, that sack you left me of sky, redundant as an egg... — Bill Berkson
Something like a swarm of bees inside the air, something like a mattress full of quills, or a tee-shirt glistening with fish scales sloughed from the body of a man who blistered his fingers on the clouds he leaped to grab onto, as though he could become them, so he could be rainfall. This is the grief of wool hats in the tropics, or a bone in the river, that’s been smoothed into a pebble. You pick it up and wonder what the wind might intend as it worries the trees— but wind intends nothing, of course, like that pebble falling through the ocean inside you, behind your rib bones and moon-bone and closets full of blaring ambulance-street-cars and broken fire trucks hoping to rescue the snakes from your shoes before they start sliding up your legs like vines to poke into your holes. So I lean to read your palm, close enough to smell that perfume you’ve sprayed on your clothes and hair as though that might make you less mortal. And it does, at least while the fevers are rising inside us and our fingers are stroking that fur; at least while our barefoot dances continue long after the music’s gone limp and the rain has reminded us again of the silence always inside, like the lake we dive into, so crowded with arm-length ravenous fish we think of as sheriffs of the ocean, though they’re caught here in fresh water, sluggish with thirst and yearning for salt. But we let them devour us anyway, the way a man might turn into the cat he petted, and purr his way into oblivion while his wife sat at home watching old sitcoms and picking at her fingernails until they were bleeding, then doing pushups until she broke down and cried out dirt will be dirt. Remember: those fish weren’t fooled by the flies you tied with your father, leaning in the near-dark basement workroom, while your mother took her clothes off in the kitchen upstairs, lay down on the floor and dreamed she might melt into a skeleton to demonstrate just how a fish might shiver. And soon there was glittering glass in the path you walked, barefoot, thinking you might still escape the relentless dogs in your body—large dogs that howled like wolves and were always ravenous, until your bare feet left blood prints all over the floor beside your mother, while your father took a shower and sang in the voice of Ella Fitzgerald or Bessie Smith, if they could have sung like a man who sang like a woman, off key, and the walls started sweating as the rain seeped through the wallpaper your mother had hung, pictures of fruits that have never existed, and carrots, interspersed with small mammals—bunnies and squirrels— cute creatures, while off in the distance the farmhouse waited so patiently it almost made you cry as the horses and pigs there exploded, one by one.
The flocks inside the mind are still sometimes able to darken the sky. And there are birds that never grow tired of flying, and never seem to grow old. We think they must have wonderful names no one has learned to speak, though some people spend their whole lives trying, as if to sing them somehow out of the mind into the actual world.
I decided to walk a big circle that day to see what I could see. It felt good to have a body after weeks at the desk; it felt good to walk along alone, not talking except in my head, maybe singing a little. If there were cawing crows I would hear them, I thought, and if a deer watched from the trees, maybe I would see it, as I knew I’d see breezes moving through the grasses, as I knew I’d see spider webs. Maybe I’d sit down and read or write a little. If I could just open myself a little wider, I thought, I might be something instead of just someone, for a little while. I might even try to stand still for an hour, or lie down off the path where no one could see me and pretend to dry up and blow away. I could be a gesture moving quickly through the trees. Watch me move as emptiness through the energetic air like a glint you didn’t see. But you thought you did.
Inside each moment, he explains, there’s meat, like the meat inside a nut, a nut that must be roasted and cracked open, somehow, to be eaten, a nut that grew on a tree, from a blossom, and might have been eaten by a bird when it was just a bud, though it wasn’t. So you taste it. That’s what it means to really be alive. And that bird has flown off to land in another kind of tree, to sing songs that would remind you of the smell of dust drifting through sunlight in an old wooden house you found in the woods once, lay down in and rested on that bare wood floor. You imagined the people who built that room, as you listened to the whisper the dust made landing all around you and you woke to the shiver of cool wet grass against your bare feet, as you ran to where the sun was shining, a patch where the grass was dry. The sun felt warm on your body, and your body itself was just itself, and it fit into that moment like the tree inside the nut, and the bird inside the tree as it took off to fly south, while the deep boulders groaned on their never-ending journey to the surface and the light.
Our bones will be shiny and new, our eyes will be watching whatever they want to, and if they don’t know exactly what it is they want they may well be offered a smorgasbord of landscapes to choose from, mountains to orchards. And the rooms will be fitted with small gusts of wind, like shadows scrubbed of their darkness, so there will be no need of windows. Outside, the trees will be hung with speakers for pop songs, to drown out whatever might wail and wake us, while everything sharp will be flensed into light from the future, buzzing like sterilized dreams—and who wouldn’t hum to the blood as it flumes through the fist we keep clenching inside ourselves, like a jellyfish? Aren’t muscles sometimes more vividly living than we are? Listen: I’ll sing a-cappella with my breath, wondering who’s built my brain. Today it’s a nest for a bird that can’t fly or simply doesn’t want to, and her nest is beautiful— twigs, woven grasses—and the bird warms a clutch of translucent eggs; I think I hear singing inside them as I drift into twilight. Now they’ll never hatch, though the chicks try to break free; they chop with their beaks and frantically cry out. And that will be their song.
I wake up in a sleeping bag beside my father at the edge of a snowfield in the mountains he was never interested in, preferring to play tennis or walk along the beach. But here he is snoring beside me, smiling in his dream, looking younger than I feel this morning, to be honest, though the day is beautifully crisp and cool. He’s been dead for almost twenty years now, so when I slip from the bag I really don’t worry too much about waking him. I leave him there, smiling in his dream, pull on my clothes, make some tea, and set out— and soon enough my wife is walking next to me pointing out the edible plants though she left me last year, or the year before. She took all the kids we’d been thinking we might have someday, and she took the dog I loved so. But here he is now, bounding up, old Otis, rolling in the patches of snow in the shadows of the trees. I toss him a snowball and he leaps for it, laughing as only a dog can, infectiously. And so I’m laughing too, even as I realize how badly lost I am as I step off the well-plotted path, to climb down to a meadow where a score of vultures feasts on an elk whose antlers look as large, from this distance, as a tree. They will strip the bones bare, but the skeleton and antlers will lie there in the grass that’s darkened and matted like a wound now, while I wonder what a dead father dreams and call out to my wife to come back and help name our children; then I whistle for my faithful old dog, who seems to have disappeared, so he’ll bound through the trees slobbering with joy to see me, his master. Or because he’s smelled those bones.
... is this our body? — Gary Snyder
We were sitting in the windowless, air-conditioned classroom, under the buzzing, too-bright fluorescent bulbs, discussing contemporary poetry, specifically Gary Snyder’s “The Bath,” that hymn to family nakedness, the body, this earth and the star-packed sky, and when I turned out the lights— just to see if that might kick-start the conversation, as darkness often does—it was shockingly, palpably dark, a crate sealed tight for shipping, a collapsed cave in the side of a winter mountain, except for the on-off light on the computer, as though the night sky had been emptied but for one distant planet, perhaps our only hope. Is this our body? one girl, who’d hardly ever spoken, even when I’d called her name, asked then of everyone sitting in the darkness, and another girl said wow. Some others started humming. And when I switched on the lights again, everyone sat there squinting like half-grumpy, near-sighted newborns just woken from their naps, whose diapers needed changing, impatient for their mommies, with their swollen, milk-gorged breasts, to realize they were waiting there, starving.
Sure, we could ask our true selves to slice open the clouds hanging in our closets, and let the memories of summer afternoon thunderstorms sweeten our shoes; we could throw open our windows to let the waves rush in; sure, we could awaken the surfboards sleeping in their narrow cots and ride from wind to breeze to breath— or we could practice the instruments we’ve never mastered: tweezers and dental floss, toothbrush and broken-toothed comb; we could learn how to stroke harmonics by grooming our middle-aged physiognomies if it weren’t for afternoons like this one, when a man called father gets caught in the window, and fades into something like the skin of our eyes as we watch the trees fill with dusk and the cars move their passengers up and down the streets, when we can’t help seeing a crow who looks like our mother out there nodding at the window. But then she’s just a stump by the time we arrive. It’s like the smell of glass in winter, a mirror filled with frozen rain, as the brother, our brother, holds something like a howl inside his shadow. Soon enough he’s only the smell of a tooth buried under a pillow by a wolf-child with an old soul, the son who sings pop songs backward and is chosen as a holy man by his crossing guard, his teachers, and his friends, yet his friends are afraid of the charms he weaves with the wind to make himself something like grass-kneeling-down, long hair of the bodies imprisoned underground, as you are imprisoned in the girl of this family, Sweet Sally of the Rocks, who glistens like mica and breaks things to mend them, to break them and mend them again by stitching or gluing, staples or nails. When you clap she’ll vanish. But listen: truly she has never been; truly, she is mica at the center of our days, that sharpens our bones and lights those faces in the photograph albums we consult to remember our lives, until eventually we’ve misplaced what glinted. And then we’re just lost light.
Michael Hettich’s most recent book of poetry, Systems of Vanishing, won the 2013 Tampa Review Prize in Poetry and was published in April, 2014. Other books include The Animals Beyond Us (New Rivers, 2011) and Like Happiness (Anhinga, 2010). In addition to Mudlark, his poems have appeared in such journals as Orion, Ploughshares, Poetry East, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Notre Dame Review. He lives and teaches in Miami. His website is michaelhettich.com.