Roger Mitchell is the subject of this issue’s Closer Look. Please also go there to better appreciate his work over time.
by Roger Mitchell
Drinking Wine on the Deck in Late
during the Annual Pine Pollen Release
tiny grains of yellow dust
pollinate the surface of the Pinot.
Should I drink them, as the heroes do
in Homer the sesame seeds or wheat berries,
before the slaughter? The day slides off
its robe of light, arrays itself for sleep.
Finer than talcum, the pollen grains descend
on everything, including the letters
of Philip Larkin to Monica Jones,
which I read as invisibly as I can,
and as slowly, here inside the great
green mist that hovers across the valley.
No little ruffle of the leaves went by
without their noticing the owl buried
in shade or indigo bunting doing
its bill wipe on the alder bush. No end came,
too, to their hesitation and desire.
Connie and Will’s barn continues its slide
into the earth, stern first. We are at sea,
it would seem, and though sinking, do not move
toward the lifejackets or the folding chairs.
Midsummer turns slowly toward us, shaggy
as a satyr, promising nothing at all,
presenting itself as large beings do,
mastodons or muskox, who lived here once,
and like the old people in a novel,
serve an obscure purpose polishing the bars
of their cell and interpreting the coos
of the lackadaisical dove. A large
swept-winged bug lands on the poem, with twin,
arced antennae and a red tail cocked upward
through the stern cape its lacy wings make.
Had Set Out
had set out, as they say in old books,
so long ago, he had now to invent
much of what happened, then salt it
with some that did. Such as the day
they were coming back from some event
up north, Raleigh or Chapel Hill,
one of those family outings made
to hold in place a limitless free rambling
someone would call, when the rest were gone,
the way it was, the way we saw it,
the way it served up the ebb and flow,
that he saw out the window, head held down,
trotting its way back down a two-lane road
in 1946, the dog we had been told,
for reasons clear at the time, we had to give away,
miles from where we were soon never
to be from ourselves, determined to return.
asks if I prefer
scissors or shaver.
I try not to care,
let her choose,
but she deciphers
my hair, mentions
her goat, Mongolian,
with long ears, while I try
to read her life, gray hair,
soft accent, long years
as hairdresser in this place
far from Germany, cities,
all she must have known
before, child of the Reich,
all that she saved from that
to make a sweet-tempered
lady who comes back
to our conversation
from her concentration
on my head, her work,
the Christmas cookies
she will bake tonight,
with an easy “how old are you,”
since, as she hints,
I might qualify
for the senior rate.
Such easy flattery,
such tender pretending,
I give her a good tip,
not a big one,
not wanting to lose
in a splashy display
her warm absorption
in her life.
of my first, fumbling boyhood
hormonal rush, onto the lips
of whom I pressed a
hesitant kiss in the hallway
outside your door before fleeing
back into the safer weirdness
of my incomprehensible loneliness,
nursing it with nightly walks
on the boardwalk where the ocean
kept sanding the voices of the lovers,
lovers I was sure were out there
in the dark (though the word “lover”
had yet to enter my available
word hoard), I want to say that I meant
to come back, though not,
as you see, in person, but in poem
(another word unavailable
to me then) and not immediately,
not the next day on the beach
or the day after that at the shop
where they pulled taffy
shamelessly in the window,
but here at the end of two lives,
only one of which I’ve heard of
in all these years. He’s all right, by the way,
and he wants you to know that many times
in the intervening decades, in the tremors
and slidings of the average earthly visitation
he has sometimes repeated your name:
Svetlana, Svetlana Filipovich,
wondering who you became
and whether your parents, whom some Germans
tattooed along the forearm,
survived the innocence and the taffy,
and the hot stinging sand of south Jersey.
First Fairy Tale
forests, shafts of light,
Finland, maybe Russia.
People so poor they faint
at things they’ve never seen,
though they’ve seen everything,
armies trudging back and forth,
a man falling down,
even, at a distance, gold.
The world's pain is great.
It’s everywhere, in the food
they eat, air they breathe.
They don’t believe in it.
Like the air,
they don’t see it. So close,
it might be everything,
so tight, they can’t
take it off. They wear it
to sleep in, or,
since even sleep
is a stranger,
lashed with dreams,
they lie there hoping
for a little disappearance,
behind it, under it.
When the knock
on the door comes,
they don’t think a first time,
never mind a second.
They just open it.
gas station just off Germantown Avenue,
the night after she died.
Thirty-nine years after the divorce.
Self-serve, no one around.
Tomorrow, I drive home all day.
Now I watch the numbers climb
on the digital screen.
All my life, counting.
Whatever else it’s made of,
it always has a number.
The four sides of the screen,
single car at the corner light.
The sixth floor, 7:45 pm.
The pump stops itself.
7.24 new gallons in the tank.
“Do you want a receipt?”
The “Yes” button smudged
from so much use.
Yes. I push it.
I want a receipt. Of course.
I paid for it.
Of course I want a receipt.
Now that I’m Older
that I’m older than Wallace Stevens
ever got to be, what do I say?
I’m sorry? That’s what I said to Dad
when I saw him last, laid out on a stand,
or table, in the back room at the mortician’s.
Maybe that’s why I said it. I knew then
I had forgotten something, maybe
how I got here. You can’t just
drop out of a passing cloud or thought,
though I love saying it. Maybe I did.
Maybe that’s what I want to say
now, to Wally and the rest of the gang.
I’m sorry, but I’ve stopped being sorry
anymore. The wind is blowing the way it does
when everything before it, clouds included, bows,
not to it, but to the way it’s going.
About the Dream
clouds float sleek and low over the hills
without moving a muscle. See the bee
approach the umbrella and swerve away.
See the nuthatch. It may come to a point
we can’t believe, but hasn’t it always?
The idea of the other, for instance.
Something keeps clouds from crashing to the ground.
Call it what you like. The word doesn’t know
what you want it to be about, nor does
the something that keeps avoiding the word.
Your Hands off the Wheel
What kind of happiness is it
when you get your tires rotated?
Do you like being cared for? I do.
And having a thing fixed? What joy!
The tires—is the word “grasp?”—grasp
the road with such keen delineation
they almost turn themselves.
You take your hands off the wheel
just to see. You almost want to let
those peppy tires roam. And the fresh
oil sings in the cylinders “hola.”
Or is it “ole?” They don’t say
in the manuals. Somebody
might think they were dotty.
Or possibly a poet. Why not
a poet? They also serve
who spend long hours petting a leaf.
And they love the explosive hissing
of compressed air as it stiffens
the rubber tread and the sticker
that says you’ve been inspected
and, what’s more, passed. And there
is the freshly painted double yellow line
stretching all the way to Needles
or Fort Smith, two of the places
I’ve passed through wondering,
stunned again that people live.
And do it anywhere earth meets sky.
Selling the Encyclopedia
I sold the set of 1910s,
as though they were mine. I meant to buy
them back, return them, though I must
have thought they were mine in a way.
The set I replaced them with was newer
but beaten up. It didn’t look as good
on a shelf and so lay stacked sideways
on the floor in a corner of my parents’
basement, never used as I recall,
until it was hauled away by one
of the handymen Mother hired
around the house. That Hungarian,
I think, who fled Budapest
in ’56 and mowed lawns for a living.
They thought I could use it at college.
It was never like that at college.
I took it (though I must have been sent it),
but never used it. There never
seemed to be any need for a broad,
reliable, compendious view
of anything, especially one
from before the atom was smashed,
or the Germans. Merely a book
I had to have read the night before
or a paper made out of facts
I could only assemble quickly
in a mind that couldn’t sort them
and a prose that hardly concealed it.
I was sorry I did it, later.
My clumsy attempt to undo it
almost appeased them, though the look
on Mother’s face when I told her
is still with me. Mother is not, though.
It was fifty years ago at least,
when the turn in my life began,
and I could see the long bend of it
out in front of me for years,
taking me I didn’t know where.
Here, I suppose. Thinking of Mother.
Happy I had the chance to steal
my life, and not have to pay it back.
IIWhat, after all, was the good
of an encyclopedia?
I couldn’t have asked the question then.
It was obvious what the value
of so many carefully chosen words
on all the leading subjects was.
These were admittedly not Freud’s
or Plato’s or Kepler’s original thoughts,
but those passed through an approving
or governing body of experts who explained
everything. Everything, it seems, had
an explanation, if it wasn’t
already in the preferred mode,
information itself: raw,
digestible, ready for use.
It was another world than mine.
As was the world. That first year,
I roomed with someone I almost
never spoke to. Nor he to me.
He had friends from the school he’d come from.
They were cool, aloof, had an assured
bearing, which I studied. They knew
more than I did, though what
it was never clear. They talked together
in the next room, went in and out
without a greeting. I stayed away.
Came back late at night, fell asleep.
The encyclopedia had nothing
to say about not knowing things
about yourself that you had to know
before you could hope to know
anything. So I wrote a paper
on the origin of God. Four pages.
The professor had me in for a chat.
I wish I’d remembered his name.
He was almost pleasant, bemused,
and while he was wondering what
sort of disturbance he had on his hands,
I was wondering why I was there.
In that room, of course. But, underneath,
why anywhere. I spent my time
sucking things in through my eyeballs.
Years later, I could spot a classmate
in a crowded air terminal, even
one I’d never met or said a word to.
III“Stealing it” may be over-dramatic,
even false. As the phrase goes,
they gave me life. I hardly stole it.
But like the encyclopedia,
it came in a set of matched bindings,
embossed in gold, the pages thin,
almost transparent, but densely crammed
with words. All they thought I would need,
much of which they didn’t know
themselves–why should they?–justified
right and left, in lordly columns,
rolled like banners down the page.
I confess I read in it from time
to time, knew the population of Rome
in 1900, the number of board feet
of mahogany Peru exported,
the currency of Curacao.
I forget if there was an entry
under “Sex.” There must have been,
but it told me nothing, as most
entries did. Nothing I could use
to make my way across the quad
or up to the dining hall and back,
at the door of which they kept a few
stained ties in case you forgot yours.
Choosing where to sit, with whom,
the subject of conversation,
how much of your own ignorance
to reveal so as to get some help
with the incomprehensible
assignment in a course as much
removed from the world as I was,--
these were the issues, these the great
tracts across which students tramped
in the snow leading up to Christmas
in the years after the Russians
had the bomb and no one felt safe
in a world we ourselves had made
one morning in Hiroshima.
But, yes, my parents wanted a world
you could put in alphabetical,
or, for that matter, any order.
IVRiding the T into the city,
I looked at the ads above our heads,
or, if quick, at people across
the aisle, unavoidably myself
in the window. You have to look
at something, if only the masked
faces and slack limbs of the riders
enduring the necessary death
of movement that took them elsewhere.
Everyone has a life and a want.
Everyone has, too, the distance
between them. Mine was to know
who lived at the back of the brick
tenements only fifty feet
from the grinding roar of the train.
There were lights on in some of them.
People were eating or making love
behind curtains that never opened
in an approaching and receding
rattle of metal, in intervals
of throaty calm. On the platform,
waiting, I watched rats scurry
along the rails. Others watched, too.
No one spoke. No one had to.
Was it at Park that one came up
onto Boston Common, a pool
of somnolent black in the crash
of city lights? My errand?
Whatever it was, it was never
the one I was on, which I was not
to learn for years, when I would stop
carrying other people’s dreams
around in a dented suitcase,
listening instead to late night
radio jazz or writing knotted
little phrasings I called poems,
only of course to wind up carrying
a different set of the dreams of others,
the ones I thought of as mine.
I had been born in that city,
which you would think would make it mine,
but I was nowhere in it. The trees
were alien. The stones were cold.
Remarkable that happiness
grows in such cankered passages,
that out of little so much comes,
poems rising out of castoff
glances, evasive mastery.
VThese are a few extractable
events surrounding a dubious
act in the fifties. Our hero
wanted to go out west to ski
and hadn’t the cash. So, he sold
what some might have called a part
of his inheritance, the legacy
of world intelligence, a fund
of fact and opinion unmatched
since the Dark Ages fell apart.
But how could the sifters know
what bashing the slopes at Aspen
meant or how bunking four nights
against the working end of an
all-night bowling alley could bend
the intellect? He learned to tell
a strike from a split by the fast,
hard, clean smack of the pins as they
scattered in the pit, none of the split’s
gradual dismantling dribble.
And then there was the drive, non-stop,
Boston-Denver, forty-two hours,
with two strangers neither of whom
he ever saw again, though one,
called Milo, came from Italy
and wore his coat over the shoulders,
his arms free to gesticulate,
and the other, he tried hard
to recall, was either Jim or Dan.