She tells me about the Greeks, who believed the past
was before them, and the future behind, because the
past they could see, but the future was hidden, always
out of sight.
A train of dust moves through a landscape of trees
and altitude, toward what we might call home
if our thoughts were clouds and this movie we’re watching
were life: You have me in the palm of your hand,
someone in the back calls out. I walk
through the canyon of your life line, my love; if you make
a fist or grab something roughly, that might
be the death of me. Someone else opens
a window and thrusts his head out into
the summer afternoon. He calls to the trees
and the river; calls out to the shaggy cliffs
to make him something like the color of the sky
before the day’s darkened, when the leaves seem to think
like hands, each scribbled with veins and singing
with evening’s rustle. We know we won’t arrive
until those dogs running up and down the aisles
have howled out the full moon, so they can think
coyote, think fox, think wolf as they leap out
through the open windows, out into the night
and their happiest dog-selves, which really are wild,
as we are too, when we sing. So we sing
whatever languages we’re able to create
from this middle-aged malaise, on this dust train of distance
and glossy magazines full of photographs of doll-faced
women whose breasts sweat milky tears
and whose legs must smell of still-warm plastic,
though no one really notices, since all of us are watching
those hounds chase our train, nipping at its wheels
as out there through the trees, our other families’ lives
continue as though we’d never left them. There are flowers
bordering the sidewalks; there are children who listen
to this train and think its roar is the world
their parents have denied them, the world they’ll enter
someday, when they’re ready to pay for their past lives
to clear like windows, and pray for their breath
to find bone it can flesh, before some other howling.
A person put together like a bundle of sticks, tied tight with twine and leaned in a corner because he or she looks beautiful there. A person swept up like sawdust on the shop floor after a day spent building sturdy furniture. Or a person imagined in the egg-filled nest abandoned in the live oak, a nest that will fall in the wind. I told you one morning a person was an empty train moving through the mountains at night and waking a woman who listens to the wind in the trees when the train passes. Then she gets up and goes outside in her nightgown, walks across the chilly grass and steps into the creek that runs across her land. She stands there feeling the cold water and the stones. Then she returns to her house and lies back down. Her skin is the color of a candle in the dark.
And you whom I’ve loved forever disagreed, asserting that a person is something else entirely, a subway car full of sweating strangers, rushing under the river at night while tugboats and tankers negotiate the currents and flounders look up from the mud. A person is the newspaper an old man crumples and throws to the floor, amongst all those aching subway feet, and a person is the woman who leans to pick it up, smoothes it slowly and begins to read.
She will walk home soon through the balmy summer streets, to her husband who’s cooking and singing as he waits for her. A person is the sidewalk that leads to her front stoop. A person is the music she hears in the distance, a song she remembers from church. She hums it, growing hungry as she walks. A person, I said then, is the glass of wine she savors, the toast between her and her husband. But another kind of person is the bike someone stole from the rack in front of the library, a bike which was given in love, for Christmas, that’s being stripped now and spray-painted gold. On other days a person is more like the opossum with a baby in her pouch, who sniffs at the back door. We watch her push the garbage can around, trying to knock it over but afraid of hurting her baby if the can falls on her, so she gives up and walks off across the weedy grass to look for papaya, broken open and rotting, or for mango or starfruit waiting in the bushes. A person is that appetite for sweetness in the dark.
My other Michael barks at night when lizards cross our bedroom floor.
He wakes me up confused, full of needles and needing
to lock the door against the buzzing flies and bees,
against the ravenous mosquitoes. My other Michael
snuggles up against my wife. He breathes into her ear
until the breath he breathes there goes into her so far
it finds itself outside on a cool night full of stars,
this breath we call my other Michael, my better Michael, my Michael
without the drag and half-lies that make everything seem to happen
and allowing him to move. I am moving. My other Michael thanks me
for moving. My Michael, filled with oil and silence.
My Michael, weighed down now with ordinary stones.
These trees that are netted with tightly-woven spider webs.
These houses that are knee-deep in flowers.
This rain that leaps up when it hits the parched ground
and turns into many small angels. The cold
pavement as the rain falls; the puddles that try
to pretend for their brief lives they’re ponds, full of fish.
The tiny fish that live there until those puddles dry.
The worms that swim underground, a slow-motion cabaret.
The leaves that drip hours later in the blue day.
The stones that have lived here
since the earth was made.
The grass—you know grass—that is always alive
even under snow. The underground rivers
as powerful as any on the surface, in their darkness.
And above that darkness, in the houses where we live
we are moving through our rooms, as always, in a kind of daze,
as though the whole world wasn’t burning.
Michael Hettich has published over a dozen chapbooks and books of poetry, most recently Like Happiness (Anhinga, 2010) and The Animals Beyond Us (New Rivers, 2011). The Measured Breathing, his most recent chapbook, won the 2011 Swan Scythe Press contest; other awards include fellowships from the state of Florida and the Jaffe Center for Book Arts at Florida Atlantic University. He lives in Miami and teaches at Miami Dade College. His website is www.michaelhettich.com.