My exhilaration is always the same driving down the road. It’s as though I can finally unfurl myself to the weather, the accidents of happening, like meeting someone— a perfect stranger will do. We ask each other how the other is, and we both say “fine.” We are fine. It was only a few months back that I discovered cherry birches. They grow on my neighbor’s land, this a neighbor I’ve never met, and the cherry birch a tree you might also say I never met, despite its growing along the path I walk almost every day. Cheered forward on the simple business, the complicated overcoming, of hours, of days, each one of which is like no other, each a small grain of some fortuitous immersion, we say goodbye, the stranger and I, not really believing in the strangeness. It was the leaf of the cherry birch that made me stop, a lance-like spear tip, exaggerated shoulders at the stem, but, too, its slenderness and the dark, shiny, “nearly black, smooth” bark, as D.C. Peattie describes it in his book on eastern trees. OK, immersion, but in what? Air seems a likely substance, air that is everywhere, even the ground, under the ground, where it is pressed tight to a leaf, a molecule of water, the shadow of a perfect thought. The cherry birch “loves the ancient forest loam, likes to have lady fern and maidenhair around its feet.” A perfect stranger, it’s leafless now. Along its branches the swelling starts.
One day a man pulled up alongside me, anonymous at seventy miles an hour. I was flying down the interstate, full of a misery I couldn’t name or find a way to shake. He cut in front of me, so close I added curses on him to the ones I was casting wetly to the world at large from my tiny red Toyota. In Ohio on the interstate, somewhere in the lull of the landscape between Columbus and Dayton, corn on every side, the flag of my personal self-regard flew upside down. It may not be clear, but I don’t want this to be about me. It was in Ohio, after all. Beautiful river, the natives, the ones we shoved aside, once called it. Everyone knows we’re not paying attention to our own demise. Or, we are, but we don’t know what to do, what to keep or throw out. But the man who pulled up alongside me at seventy miles an hour and then drove directly in front of me, looking at me in his rear-view mirror, smiling at me, took the self right out of me, spoke to it in a language now native to this place, one conducted solely with the face, and then gave it back about ten miles later when he sped up and disappeared. Holy merde, I probably said, to all that corn by the side of the road. We are not that far away from whatever we can’t seem to locate in our language, though I couldn’t come up with it then and still can’t. What is human concern for itself as the other called these days, flashed by rear-view mirror at speeds approaching a gale force wind? Beautiful river, maybe. Holy merde.
Messy thing, the self. One has to have one. I watched someone have hers taken away. It took years. She had to watch, too, from inside. When the body decides to open the spigots, release the crystals, one can, at the least, talk to it, call it by name. But when the mind begins to leak, loses its lover, the tongue, yet forces one to watch, the best she can be is tolerated, or worse yet, wept on like an open grave. We buried her above ground, as if to say, you may not have her, who did not save her, though who we were talking to, it wasn’t clear, and couldn’t be reached or even named. In memoriam B.C.G.
Little flower that eludes my brain, you’re the one my mind can’t hold the name of more than a week or so, not much longer than you hold on to life. Every year you die, and every year your name dies in my mind. In spring I see you floating over the grass again like stars in a first universe, the one just up from mud. Forgive me for having to look you up again. Memory’s enemy or her consolation, I’m not sure which, reminding us that once there was nothing to remember, no name, no book. Everything was everything back then.
I saw her at the clinic first, trying not to see me. Perhaps, like me, trying not to be there, where they don’t hesitate to blurt out which bit of your wiring sizzled, which chip blew. Someone has moved into the empty house next door, except that it’s not next door. It’s downstairs, the attic, the basement. A bat got in at dusk. Even it doesn’t like it here, hangs up behind a curtain or bright mirror. Maybe if you don’t breathe, it will do what you want it to, not say anything, pretend it isn’t frightened, small, here, a living thing. Hello again, I said. She smiled, fist locked on the neck of a bottle.
and made us feel that nothing could come near that we would not be able to describe or talk to, catch the rhythm of in phrase or look, and charmed even the stoniest reluctance out of its hole, but with a glance of disapproval threw over any uncareful inclinations common to dogs and children a pall. For them she had great fear that they might never know the mystery she made apparent only. Once, though, she broke her own rules, spoke roughly of one she loved. The broken child she must have known herself came back, and though it sent itself away, as a mother might, we said, no, no, come back. But it had no place to be in that world.
The last few leaves cluster at the top of the highest branches of the poplars like shivering immigrants waiting for the last ferry to take them off the island, except that the next thing is the sky, which is deep, and the ferry might not come, and so they will have to swim. They are not sure they know how, and so make a small flame at the top of the tree waving stiff little village handkerchiefs to the rhythm of delirium.
Roger Mitchell is the author of eleven books of poetry, most recently The One Good Bite in the Saw-Grass Plant. His new and selected poems, Lemon Peeled the Moment Before, was published by Ausable Press in 2008. The University of Akron Press published his two previous books, Half/Mask, in 2007, and Delicate Bait, which Charles Simic chose for the Akron Prize, in 2003. Mitchell spent the largest part of his working life in southern Indiana where he directed the Creative Writing Program at Indiana University and for a time held the Ruth Lilly Chair of Poetry. Other recognition for his writing includes the Midland Poetry Award, the John Ben Snow Award for Clear Pond, a work of non-fiction, two fellowships each from the Indiana Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, the River Styx International Poetry Award, and Ren Hen Press’s Ruskin Art Club Award. He was a 2005 Fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Recently he completed a biography of the Indiana years of the poet Jean Garrigue. He and his wife, the fiction writer Dorian Gossy, live in Jay, New York. You can catch up and keep up with Roger Mitchell at rogermitchell.info. You can order his books there too.