Roger Mitchell writes poems in the conversational English of today, quiet poems that create a
world on a page and pack a punch in the larger world of our common experience.
“The Story of the White Cup,” for example, never raises its
tries too hard; the poem sears and breaks our hearts, in part, because of its homely
language. He is one of those poets who explore the depths of human
experience without the concocted trappings of obscuring language.Their effect can be electric, and at the same time tentative, the way the
world, our relationships, our very selves can feel as we navigate waters calm and tempestuous, as we come into knowledge and, perhaps,
with time, some wisdom. His poems take the reader to a moment, a place, a dynamic with raw and telling
specifics, as in the ekphrastic “What Happens Next”:
The man’s suspenders
dangle off his back.
Plump and still corseted, the wife leans
into him. And he leans back. They stand, hugging
each other hugely, holding the other’s eyes
with a fond, playful lust . . . .
primal love relationship of unquestionable vitality and authenticity is so expansive
as to hold within its intimacy their child born of it, “the girl, / who came
from something like this, and almost knows it . . . .” A few deft words draw us into the rich drama of the human family, tapping into the sometimes unacknowledged wisdom that resides within.
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 directed
the Creative Writing Program at
Indiana University and for a time held the Ruth Lilly Chair of Poetry. Other
awards include 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 the Red Hen Press’s
Ruskin Art Club Award. He was a 2005 Fellow in Poetry from the New York
Foundation for the Arts. Currently at work on a biography of the poet, Jean
Garrigue, he and his wife, the fiction writer, Dorian Gossy, live in Jay, New
This Closer Look is comprised of two sections. Here, we present a collection of work from Mitchell’s books. On his separate page in this issue, we present new poems.
Poems by Roger Mitchell
from Lemon Peeled the Moment Before
I had gone back to the old brown rambling school
with its ancient
test tubes, where I wanted to speak
and the person I wanted to speak
with was never there
or had just stepped out. They knew me there, or it
though there were girls there now. One of them said hello,
she and her friends clustered around me, laughing.
I did not feel as
old as I was, as the teachers
who occasionally threw their older and
like a pall across my suit. It was not new, I admit,
was clean. I needed a room, an inexpensive room,
to write my book in. I
needed a little space,
and the food didn’t have to be wonderful,
in a way it could be like a place I had known,
if it could be like that
hopeful moment when I was poised
before the cruel errors that would make
me the dreamer
surrounding himself with beautiful knowing older girls
who thought he was something, or with the long corridors
paneling of the school that allowed him
to be important and smart and
to everyone’s amazement, he was so skinny and afraid,
could be like that for a while, two or three months,
I might write the
book I wanted to write,
as soon as I could remember what it was about.
But I could remember what it was about later
when I had the room and the
bed and the small table
in the corner and the lamp and the meals
brought to me,
which needn’t be anything fancy, and the woods
to walk in
and the occasional girl smiling at me
and the teachers who knew more
than they told
keeping their distance, letting this happen because
knew what it was and knew that someday
they would need to go back to an old
that had never happened and were secretly cheering
themselves as they drudged past with their wisdom
and folders, sagged
from having been held too long
and rearranged and written everywhere
into the margins.
It was the teachers I was afraid of, it was the
who knew too much, more than they wanted to know,
it was the
teachers who bore the tell-tale marks,
the tiny scars that no one sees,
who had been good at hiding,
and cheering us on at the edge of the field
or the end
of the corridor under the light marked “Exit.”
They were the
dreaming adults we swore we wouldn’t become,
who kept us away from home
and the world and ourselves.
The Story of the White Cup
I am not sure why I want to tell it,
since the cup was not mine, and I was not there,
and it may not have been white, after all.
When I tell it, though, it is white, and the girl
to whom it has just been given, by her mother,
is eight. She is holding a white cup to her breast,
and her mother has just said good bye, though those
could not have been, exactly, the words. No one knows
what her father has said, but when I tell it,
he is either helping someone very old with a bag
or asking a guard for a cigarette. There is, of course,
no cigarette. The box cars stand with their doors
slid back. They are black inside, and the girl
who has just been given a cup and told to walk
in a straight line and to look like she wants
a drink of water, who cried in the truck
all the way to the station, who knew, at eight,
where she was going, is holding a cup to her breast
and walking away, going nowhere, for water.
She does not turn, but when she has found water,
which she does, in all versions of the story, everywhere,
she takes a small sip of it and swallows.
What Happens Next
We don’t know what happens next in John Sloan’s
5x7 etching, “Man, Wife and Child.”
The man’s suspenders dangle off his back.
Plump and still corseted, the wife leans
into him. And he leans back. They stand, hugging
each other hugely, holding the other’s eyes
with a fond, playful lust which the child, dressed
in a loose jumper for bed, her head too large
for her body, her thoughts starting to beat
like a startled wren against the dresser, the chair,
the small framed print, the broad-bellied pitcher
in its bowl, finds almost wonderful.
She reaches out as if to join their dance,
a dance she almost knows the music to.
But these two upright wrestlers (the wife pulls—
she may be merely hanging on—at the back
of his collarless shirt opening) don’t know,
for the moment, don’t care. Though, of course,
they do. They live in a room together,
and the stiff collar stands like a sentinel
on the dresser, the tie, untied, still threaded
through it. Drawers stand open, a spoon slants
out of a cup, or is it a bowl, and the girl,
who came from something like this, and almost knows it,
who ought to be in bed, but isn’t, sees
that tonight it doesn’t matter, and won’t
ever again. Her mother’s forearm grips
the small of her father’s back. It’s 1905.
What happens next is nothing next to this.
The Place We Came Ashore
The small colony of black noddies
tucked up into its cave. The way
every time we go there, little spurts
of clouddust or shoremist spatter us
and on each of the narrow ledges up under
the glowering volcanic cap birdlime streaks
downward in a floral exuberance.
The sea comes heaving in on time, every time,
and the birds flap out now and again just
over the top of it. Try as hard as we can
to prevent it, they disappear into the light,
shredding itself to pieces on the sea's back.
I don't know why when I think of it, I think
this is the place love found us, away
almost from our own nature, looking back
up into the land as though from another world.
As though this was the place we came ashore
all those thousands of years ago, looking
for what we would learn to call each other.
Poems I Might Have Written
The one that made no mention of the self,
except to say she’d always looked at rocks
wherever she went, turning them over
with her foot, scumbling among them for a streak
of fire, a flake of the creation’s first
gray knowledge of itself, who broke open
geodes like a safe, hoping to find
a remnant of extinction’s whereabouts.
The one about the way the people left
the city when the city stopped, the way
the city stood there in its own shadow
and watched. The people had nowhere to go,
but they went anyway, in streams, in long
ropey flowages over the darkened bridges.
Poem with a Boy on a Bus
I want to wake up from something like sleep,
something in which the events of sleep,
which move too fast to be seen, mingle freely
with the knowledge that I am not asleep,
and read a poem I remember reading somewhere
about a boy sleeping on a bus in Madrid,
on a bus going away from Madrid actually,
out into the Spanish countryside at night,
countryside I’ve never seen, filled with night,
another country I’ve seen little of,
and write a poem no one understands,
that moves too fast to be understood,
that thinks understanding is a color
or an aromatic soap, that understanding
may be what the grass does all summer long
or light putting itself down slowly toward the end of day.
On the far side of the mountain, someone
is writing a sentence that has neither beginning,
middle nor end. He sits by the window and lets
the sun look over his shoulder. In the words
are the meanings of the words, but he prefers
to rub them together. That way, they murmur
things they would never understand, or need to.
Sitting Sideways, Doing Chemo
I know you don’t like your mirror
these days, but when you sit sideways
on the small couch in the sun
in the back room
and forget for the moment
the fear and the nausea
and the responsibility of being
beautiful, and the burden
of being with others,
thinking that you’re alone
and thanking the book you’re reading
for being blind, and the sun
for having a more important constituency
than Jay to represent,
there you are,
the large, calm, serious presence
I have in my life, the self
inside the self that carries on
with the task of living her days
all the way through to the end.
Yes, she’s bald, and for the time,
she’s put her make-up away,
but out from behind the masks
has come the part that’s not quite human,
smooth stone in the river,
the part that makes
being what it is, fragile of course,
but bearable, bearable
the most beautiful part.
I want to show you the long wrinkle
of the Stephenson Range in late afternoon
at the end of October when the sun
has got around behind it or off to one side
so all you see is the long sinewy line
of the gentle summits and humps
as they come in from behind Bassett
on one side and the battered pines
along the drive on the other.
The clouds stand back above them
and let them be seen. They look
like something a painter rubbed in
at the last moment with a dry brush,
saying, I have to leave,
but before I do, let me show you
what I mean by letting go
and not knowing what of.
It’s hard to describe a cloud
that won’t hold still, that looks like
a thought you started to have
but then got swept away, you
or the cloud, it’s hard to say.
Though both of you live above
and a bit to the left of the world,
and the snow which is early this year lies
along the ground and under the bushes
like a cloud that got caught in a fence,
and though it had no choice,
decided to abandon the sky
and make instead the smaller
summits and humps, the minor
loosenings and rangey unravelings
of the local language its own.
A Book on a Shelf
A history of some sort, one that made us,
a war and what the war had meant, or since
meaning eludes war, what it did to the look
of the trees and the sides of the buildings,
most of which survived, only to be torn down
later to widen the street or put up a new
office complex. There it was on the shelf.
I was there only a moment, but still,
I wanted to know what happened to the man
in the photograph wearing a flat cap
standing outside the important building
cheering. He was there. He was part of that
moment, one of the first into the streets
when the turn of events came, the declaration
or pronouncement, words that would change
the look of everything he smiled on, words
that may have cost him his life. Here it is
in a book I found on a shelf. The person
who lives here bought it at a library
stock reduction sale. No one had read it.
It looked interesting thirty years ago.
It was practically new, the back uncracked.
But the person did what those before her had,
put it up on a shelf and never found
a way back to it. The history sits there,
unread, unbelievable, somebody else’s.
Even I have only looked at the pictures,
at the man smiling between the cold pages.
Maybe ending the world as he knew it
was ok. Maybe it was the only way.
Maybe the world has to come to an end
in the first place to be the world. And the man?
He has to smile, though he knows so little
of what’s coming, even looking right at it.
As we do, who still haven’t read the book.
What It Is
I have no clear idea what it is,
that being part of it, but sometimes
it comes into the room as if looking,
a little desperate, but indifferent,
anxious, but not ever for you and not
of course staying any longer
than to say, “I’ve lost someone,”
then leaving, through a watery silhouette,
a hole in the room’s natural light,
as though, by going, it had torn itself
off the skin of the eyeball, opening
a way into further light, revealing,
like the cleaned corner of an old painting,
this room, for the first time, as it is.
After the Towers Melted
It may have been blasphemous, even cruel,
but someone wrote poetry after The Great Plague.
Others wrote in the midst of it, dying.
It was written in the trenches in France.
Scott wrote it at the South Pole.
During the Chicago Fire, The Blitz,
somewhere in the cellars of Dresden,
on the tilted deck of the Titanic,
someone scribbled a last thought,
held tight to a burning image.
As we do, the two nameless strangers
leaping eighty floors hand in hand.
Hiroshima did not escape this blight
of perception, nor did Rwanda.
The ovens at Birkenau were rank with it.
Everywhere great suffering reaches into our lives,
poetry arrives. With its wan smile
and rumpled clothes, its useless gestures.
Which it knows to be useless.
Like a drooling old grandmother,
like a crow in the middle of the road,
it tells us what we already know.
Nothing surpasses the afternoon.
Or the wind urging these clumsy branches
toward the future, wherever that is.