I’ve never read the works of the great Somali poet, Samatar Baxnaan, not a single poem, line or word. But I have had his picture next to my desk for thirty years. I knew, when I saw it somewhere— a magazine, I suppose— that that’s what I meant all those years ago when I said, in complete ignorance, I will be that, if I can, a man sitting in a chair, clothes draped loosely around my body, holding a stick in hands pared down to the bones. In back of me, a wall of sticks. Beneath, my old friend, dirt. My eyes are somewhere behind those gray glasses falling off my nose. And yes, I’m happy, particularly so, since you dropped by.
I was introduced one night at a famous poet’s reading, London, the seventies, the two of us part of the audience. It was an intermission or something, he and his wife sharing a tiny table with me against the wall, and she, when I didn’t know, quite, who the man was we were both drinking with, severely but silently accused me of what I would later agree was an unthinkable crime to Alan Ross. Whose poems I would later learn, of war-time service in the North Atlantic, if you made a few changes of name and equipment, read like bits of the Odyssey Homer mistakenly crossed out, what it was to be forever at sea, a member of the crew, a nobody, with home a distant fiction. Here’s to you, Alan Ross, dead though you now are, the poet I didn’t know when I shook his hand.
She stood beside a stack of boxes at the curb, guarding all that was left of a life suddenly blown apart. The dispatcher had warned me her voice was shaky on the phone. She said she had no one to go to and less of an idea where. I told her The Sunshine Motel had low rates and no interest in anybody’s history. Fine, she said. I helped carry her boxes into the unit, trying not to pry, but still let her know by smile, tone of voice, mention of the weather, that I cared, even understood. I couldn’t, of course, but I knew something, something unforeseen, terrible even, cruel. I wanted her to know what I wanted to know myself, what I knew I would someday need, something so foolish I blushed saying it, even then. You will survive whatever it is now you think you can’t. And, hoping to arouse some intractable force on both of our behalves, I thanked her for the tip but gave it back. In Boulder, nineteen sixty-one, when even the world didn’t know what it was, she took a taxi like a pill, passed the memory of it on to someone who thought he had seen what it turned out he had, an intimation of the slow adjustment to the curb, eyeless faces flashing past, little but the minute in your pocket.
I wasn’t looking for a haircut, but I found one. At Bud’s. Bud wasn’t there, but his two female associates were, both sitting in their barber’s chairs, one reading the paper to the other. I sat down in the near chair and listened to the other read recipes on what to do with pumpkins, if you had, as people always do, more than they know what to do with. Pumpkin jam, pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin wine, the list went on, longer than my haircut which was over in eight minutes, nine at the most. I couldn’t believe it. It was like I had been given ten minutes of my life back, minutes I was going to have to spend in the chair listening to a few of the things that people like to have on their minds, especially when the country and the world seem about to fall into a state almost no one can remember: simple, plain, doing with less and liking it, making out of it a story of heroic prudence and patience. We’ve all heard this story a thousand times, and some, like myself, have even told it, though I was never there. I like the idea of getting along on less, though I don’t. I seem to need more, though when I ask myself why, I forget the answer or look out the window. I go get another cup of tea or a cracker. At the very least, I turn on a switch which sucks electricity up off some grid along the Hudson where the Hudson itself has been drafted into the army of my providers to cool down a nuclear reactor and incidentally light up a few thousand radioactive fish. Men fish there. So do birds. Tugboats push barges up and down. I’m not sure what’s in those barges, but it looks gray and used, disappointed you might say, on its way to some ocean or other, some coral reef, some beach where the mothers will have to yell at their children, get out of the water, it’s got shit in it, or something. I hate thinking of mothers yelling the word shit to their children, but what choice do they have? “Defecation?” “Doo doo?” “Bad stuff?” Bring back the beaches of our youths, America. Or should I say, “World?” That’s the story they ought to print in the paper. Forget the pumpkins. Of course, the haircut might slow down if they do, take all day, while everybody weighed in with an opinion. That’s the good thing about pumpkins. They’re hard to have an opinion about. They’re orange. But as soon as you say that, somebody will bring up The Battle of the Boyne, and everybody will say, what?
They were looking in my direction as I crossed the street. Four men, boys really, standing next to the door, smoking. My first negotiation, getting past them into the store. I didn’t want to look at them too closely or seem interested in why they were standing there. It was none of my business, and I wanted it kept that way. I passed on in with a glance up the street. Let them see I was there for a purpose that didn’t include whatever clammed them up as I went by. For an hour or so, I wandered the store’s narrow alleys, littered with used books, paperbacks mostly, meringues whipped into a froth in a matter of weeks, shoved in at all angles, stacked on the floor. It was a small place in a small town trying to stay alive. Out front, they were doing the same thing. The border was forty miles away, the place almost evacuated. People were getting out. Down at the end of the row, where they squeezed a random assortment of poets between a broken air-conditioner and a toilet that wouldn’t stop flushing, I found what I was after: Hugh Kenner’s early book on Pound. Never been read. Or, if it had, whoever it was wanted to keep it a secret. Why would anyone do that, I wondered. Nobody answered. It was in mint condition. He (or maybe she) left no trace, the wrapper barely crumbled along the edges. Inside, the pages had picked up the faintest tan. The acids were breaking down the fibers. Down in the trough, it was musty. It smelled like home brew, that bilge you choke down smiling simply because you made it. Here it was, though, the book that started an industry. My job? Find out whose it had been, who it was that thought life in this town might someday take on the quality of Italian marble, the lull of the Mediterranean Sea in the rush and thrash of the Oswagatchie, instead of this odor of airless rooms over a run-down Taco Bell. He was a dreamer, whoever he was, and he gave it away at the end, as any decent dreamer would. But there it was, stuck like a splinter deep in the palm of a small town struggling to know what it was, what it was fighting, and why. I put it back on the shelf. I couldn’t take it away. The town needed it more than I did. I bought an Elmore Leonard instead, something about Cuba or L.A., places I’d read about, pages as well-thumbed as the places they described.
I don’t come down into the city just for coffee and a bagel at Shalom Chai, for a little pretending to belong, though as the sign inside says in large letters, it is under the direct supervision of Rabbi Pinchos D. Horowitz (Chuster Rav) and often patronized by small clusters of the local Hasidim. Nor do I take the long slow train ride down along the Hudson, so close to it ducks look up in wonder, geese seem interrupted, to listen to the laughter and complaint of people who, I think, invented both. The Mets would blush to hear what love and hate they spawn. Death would cower, if it knew how, to be so starkly ridiculed, defied, and then like a lover in an argument, made up to, a lover you hurt terribly, who knows you’ll never make it up, no, not all the way, not if you live forever, yet still turns her head toward you at the end. I watch this happening in your poems now, Death become someone you have to court, this time for nothing more than living well. I listen in on the holy kvetching, the lyrical arraignment of the end, hoping to catch the lilt of it, the jab. You should see the quickness of the cook’s knife here, slicing my bagel sideways. He misses the tips of his fingers this much, then fills my cup so full I burn my lip on the first sip.
Sometimes the Monarch butterfly, which goes past in a manner no other thing has thought of, not even the day, or the cars hidden beyond the trees, which pass so as to leave constantly on the air the sandy noise of their going, I want to say nowhere, since the noise is constant, but nowhere doesn’t exist, especially if you live there. Sometimes the grass waves, and the lanky clusters of yellow flowers bob in a way I’m beginning to imitate, though if the wind is gentle enough, they sway instead, singing to themselves, and the grass sometimes listens, and sometimes doesn’t, content to be grass sometimes, but sometimes prefers to dance the way people do with the curtains drawn and nobody home but you.
I. He never went anywhere, barber or bar, without Giselle. A discreet goat, her hooves clattered only a little on the cobble. She didn’t snatch, too, when you gave her things, though she looked right at you, as if you’d not remembered something, or weren’t fast enough pulling out of your pocket or purse your last gum drop or shred of potato peeling. Piece of string, for that matter. Clancy himself would give her a lick of suds off the top of his pint. That was the way it was back then. We tried not to impose too much on one another. Coal was costly, so we burned peat. Everyone wore wool. A terrible, comforting smell when wet, wool. Forgive me, the cough comes on me hard this time of year. Too much breathing, I suppose. You won’t find too many left who knew her. People keep to themselves here. If we didn’t, we’d have no selves to keep. Or stories to tell. She was half wild but cared for her father till he died, talked him down from the tree like a leaf that needed reminding which way to go. After that, she left. II. Clancy knew her, of course. Everyone did. A woman that beautiful, and alone. If you said hello, she would almost smile. You can do it all with your eyes, you know. If you pour yourself out before your foot’s out of the taxi, people step nimbly over the spill on their way to the door. Hold back, and they start keeping a log. Her father came home from the war with steel splinters in his mind. He stayed at home, never went out. Nobody came around. They were afraid to know what the truth was, though they didn’t hesitate to speculate. Clancy, though, he was smitten, sorely. He took up the fiddle, resined the bow, and sang the old songs in a wailing screech. He didn’t care that we listened in, smiled and rolled our eyes, stuck to our sanity. But you could hear the sleeping lizards breathe when he drew his bow across the strings. Nineteen tones vied for the right to carry uncomplicated love across the grass. III. Many of the songs were his, maybe most. Not quite love songs, love still passed through them. He liked the minor key, avoided speed, and though I couldn’t always hear the words, they seemed to pull against themselves, the shadows lifting and rain brightening everything it fell on. Light was never still in Clancy’s songs. It crept up behind things. Water is a great divider, he sang, and divine. I wish I’d written them down. One I recall had a hatchet in it. I can’t sing, but some of the words went like this: I left the town I loved behind and all the people in it, but I never forgot the day, the hour, the hatchet of the minute, when the moon sank beneath the hill and took the hill down with it. He’d repeat the last two lines twice, slowing it down, preparing the moment of the song’s departure, when it left us the way his songs often left us, alone in a great pool of silence he’d conjured out of cat gut and leaving a thing unsaid.
And even I can remember A day when the historians left blanks in their writings — Pound, Canto XIII
On some days there was nothing to put in the journal, not because nothing happened, but because whatever happened took everything with it. Sometimes all that was left was the need to turn away, to forget for the moment, to sleep and try again. Though since nothing is ever entirely the same the day after, the trying again was a starting over, the same words in the same mouths, the same need gnawing at the same crumbs until the hunger left and the words rose like a boil of alerted geese leaving a marsh, and the marsh, disturbed for a moment, settling into the silence things do when they come into an understanding, though not necessarily the one sought for.
Dull glow of dawnlight over the frosted grass. No wind. Everything still. Up before me, the dog stares out the window, my borrowed dog, whose life I marvel at, so dependent on mine, but calm, who throws herself at my feet, to play, wrestle, roughhouse, who barked at the man who came to the door yesterday, who watches every bite enter my mouth, who wags her tail from the neck down, knows when I want peace and so begs to be let out, sniffs the air for a minute and then asks to be let in. The door, scratched in memory of the interruptions we measure our day by, the coming and going. If I look in her eye, that’s it. It’s go-get-a-toy- and-play time. It’s horse-around- and-tug-on-what’s-left- of-the-last-stuffed-animal time. She knows where the heart is, the squeaker, rips it out in an instant, shredding the bear, the monkey, the psychedelic alligator. And carries her stick like a big cheroot, out at one end, when we walk through the tall grass and the bramble, scratchy, where deer have passed the night or a bear dropped scat by the path. She sniffs it all. I wish I knew as much as her nose, and I see her sit upright and gazing on the couch at nothing and wonder at a mind so composed it seems to stop at the chair across the room or the heater coming on again and thinks the thought that must lie at the end of thinking, the one for which all this getting up in the morning and going to bed at night seems to be about, which a dumb animal keeps on the tip of her tongue, the one she licks the palm of my hand with for ten or more minutes at a time in long soulful strokes.
Besides The One Good Bite in the Saw-Grass Plant, Roger Mitchell is the author of ten other books of poetry, among them Lemon Peeled the Moment Before: New and Selected Poems. Two previous books include Half/Mask (2007) and Delicate Bait (2003). New work can be found in Tar River Poetry, Hotel Amerika, Otoliths, Blueline and Innisfree Poetry Journal. His work will also appear in The Zoo of the New: Poems to Read Now, Ed. Don Patterson and Nick Laird, an anthology soon to be released in the Penguin Modern Classics series. He is Poetry Editor for the ezine, Hamilton Stone Review, and lives in Jay, New York, with his wife, the fiction writer Dorian Gossy.