~These poems were selected by Clara Jane Hallar, Assistant Editor for Poetry.
~This poem was previously published in The Great River Review (2015).
The Milky Way
If we could imagine that every word we speak
were an animal or insect, the last of a species
ever to be born, that the very act of speaking
brought extinction even before our words
had been heard and replied to, we might get a feeling
for the vanishings we witness but don’t see. And if every
conversation were understood as a kind
of holocaust denuding whole landscapes, some people
would simply fall silent—as far as they could—
while most others would keep chattering on. Just imagine
the vast forests of lives, the near-infinity of forms
brought to a halt with a simple conversation.
And I would be one of the talkers, despite
the fact that I knew what my talking destroyed.
And so I would mourn every word I said,
even while I argued passionately for silence
and for learning to honor the sacred diversity
of life. Just imagine watching the stars
go out on a dark night in the far north, a clear night,
one after the other until the sky was black.
Once, when I was taking out the garbage, just walking
dully across my back yard, a huge bird—
as big as a vulture but glittering and sleek—
rose from the grass and flew into my body,
knocked the breath out of me, then flew up and away
with a powerful pull of its wings. I could hardly
see it in the darkness. And then it was just gone.
~This poem was previously published in Notre Dame Review (2014).
To Blow Away, Like Mist
A man I knew felt sometimes as though there was a dog
stuck inside his body, almost as large as he was—
black lab or golden retriever—unable
to move in that cramped dark, yet waiting for something,
listening to the sounds outside him, in the world.
When humans were lost in the rubble of disasters,
dogs like his inner life worked tirelessly--
beyond exhaustion, even to the point of death—
to save the victims, or locate their bodies.
The man knew he wasn’t gifted with that kind of vivid selflessness,
that he lacked the keen senses such heroic dogs need.
This realization always opened a great emptiness inside him:
He could let himself seem to blow away then, like mist
in tall grass at dawn before anyone’s walked there
or even looked out at it, when the day’s breeze rises
and each blade of grass is lifted into clarity,
each stalk standing more taut as it dries,
and the small birds swoop down to disappear there for a moment
then swirl themselves up into the unencumbered sky.
~This poem was previously published in Ploughshares (2014).
Everything’s a window the professor told my class,
and I thought about breaking that glass, or shutting
the curtains, or better yet opening those windows
and climbing out into the snowy world beyond.
He said fashioning windows is the only way
we can make sense of what we see, so even
as I walked off through that snow I must have made windows.
Pretty soon I found a road, plowed clean and gleaming black,
between those walls of snow, and I walked, not the least bit
chilly, imagining I would find something
eventually. And pretty soon a big dog came bounding up.
I smelled wood smoke. Imagine discovering a village
full of people who seem to know you, at the end
of a long road, out in a wilderness of snow!
I stepped inside a house whose first floor was a dark bar,
warm and crowded with bearded men
who raised their glasses as I entered, beckoned me
to sit by the fire, and asked if I was having
the usual. I’d been lonely forever
I realized as the barmaid brought my soup and beer
with a wink that felt genuine. I was starving, so I ate
without stopping, through the night, and then I slept, in a room
with curtained windows behind which many birds
were singing, as though teaching me another way to wake.
~This poem was previously published in Poetry East (2013).
Until it Grows too Dark
My silence is walking through a strange city in the rain, a city whose language he doesn’t understand. He has no money in his pockets. His wallet is empty except for some snapshots of
a woman and two children. My silence is walking because there’s nothing else to do; he’s not looking for anything particular; he’s not sure where he is. His own silence, which is buried far deeper inside him, tells him to keep walking, keep looking. Something will show itself, his silence seems to say. This man, my silence, loves to read stories to his children, sitting in the garden in the late afternoon. His wife is beautiful. He is proud of his children. Now, in this strange city, he steps into a bodega to ask for help but feels suddenly too shy to approach the stern-looking woman by the cash register or the skinny kid mopping the floor. So my silence steps back out into the rain. He keeps walking while his own silence reassures him everything will be alright. Eventually he finds a small park with benches sheltered beneath a lean-to where he can sit out of the rain. Except for a few pigeons, the park is empty. As he sits there, he grows indistinct, until he looks more like a smudge than a man. Back where he comes from his wife and children have gathered as usual in the garden. It’s starting to drizzle, but they wait patiently there. His wife holds the book he read from yesterday. His son is impatient: he yearns to tell his dad about this girl, his classmate, who put her head down on her desk this afternoon and fell so deeply asleep no one could wake her. He wants to explain how she’d spoken in her sleep, how she’d said something to him. He whispers her name. Soon the crickets and night creatures are calling back and forth and the small family is invisible in the darkness. The mother’s voice is still whispering a story, but soon she too will fall silent.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
As a professor at a community college, I am asked to commit to a heavy teaching and advising load—basically a full-time job in the non-academic sense of that word. Thus, in order to get any writing done, I have to wake up very early every day, go into my study, still bleary with sleep, and write. Virtually all of my poetry comes out of this practice. Perhaps as a result of this writing-half-asleep, I rarely start a poem other than as pure improvisation; that is, I put a line down and then follow what occurs to me to its “logical” conclusion. Then I usually email the poem to myself and look at it every few hours throughout the day. After a few days of playing with it, I put it away to cool off for a little while (for a month or so) to revisit when I’ve forgotten it. If it sparks my interest then, after it’s cooled off, I consider it worth working on some more. If it feels inert, I let it go. Beyond that, I can’t really say much about these poems; they all arose simply out of my daily writing practice.
ABOUT MICHAEL HETTICH
Michael Hettich was born in Brooklyn, NY, and grew up in the city and its suburbs. He has lived in Colorado, upstate New York, Vermont, northern Florida, and Miami, where he has lived for many years. He has published over fifteen books and chapbooks of poetry, including Systems of Vanishing, which won the 2013 Tampa Review Prize and was published in 2014 by University of Tampa Press. Other books include The Animals Beyond Us (New Rivers, 2011) and Like Happiness (Anhinga, 2010). A new book, The Frozen Harbor, is forthcoming from red Dragonfly Press. He has taught for many years at Miami Dade College. His website is www.michaelhettich.com.
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