If I claimed I grew up in a house made real
by the songs my father sang as he moved
from room to room, songs he made up
to make the furniture solid and keep
the windows holding the wind, and if I
told you I sat in my room and cried
when he fell finally silent, because
I’d have to sing in my own voice now
and fill up the silence he left me, if I
wanted to keep things whole, and I knew
so few songs that were mine, and I knew
the whole house was listening. So I began
singing, just singing, and the songs began to move
like breeze through the house. If I told you my brother
would be dancing as he listened, in the bedroom we shared,
or that my sister would be chattering loudly
to keep my voice distant, or that my mother
would be lying in bed, dreaming of holding
my father, who slept like a hole in the ground
beside her, a cave that filled slowly with pure
water when it rained, and it had been raining
for months now—cool, refreshing curtains
of wetness falling as we slept, to fill up
the emptiness gaping beside her and make
a small pond we could swim in, together again,
whenever that rain stopped falling.
To Sing the World
Some mornings when I step outside to fetch the paper, the darkness feels laden with the damp scents of the night as the night itself seeps into the ground. Every once in a while I startle an opossum and sometimes a whole possum family as they sniff through the bushes, heading home—wherever home is—to sleep. I imagine them sleeping as a single ball of gray fur, and I wonder what they smell like, sleeping there, underneath my house, or behind some familiar bushes. I wonder how their breath sounds as they sleep. Often lately I wake in the middle of the night, startled perhaps by my own breathing. I lie there and listen to the hum my wife’s sleeping body makes, and I listen to the clicks and shifts inside the darkness. Sometimes I grow frightened, lying there, and sometimes I realize I have wasted my life. Not all of it, of course, but a substantial sum. Certain birds fly only at night, small migrating songbirds that feel safe in the darkness. They land at first dawn in the quivering trees and sing out their adventures to each other and the world.
Someone is singing from inside a house along our street, but I can’t determine which house her voice is coming from. She sings beautifully, but more than beauty, her voice conveys something more deeply haunting, as though someone could sing inside a tree or a stone. Or inside a bird, for that matter; inside a bird’s bones as that bird flies south; inside a bird’s bones as that bird lands and sings. I walk up and down the street leaning toward each house, stilling my breath, listening, as the evening settles around us. As usual, there’s no one else in the street; as usual, the houses are closed up around their secrets, as though the lives inside them were fleshless but yearning, like pollen on the breeze of a summer’s afternoon . . .
Our own house is surrounded by trees and bushes, each of which is filled with small vivid lives that are aware of us as we might be aware of many futures, potential but unformed. They don’t know what we are, but they hear us moving back and forth, yelling out and lumbering across the grass. They flicker into hiding when we come too close. Eventually they may learn to ignore us. Everything we do must seem oblivious to them, the lizards and ants, spiders and snakes, all of whom live by their wits and are granted no second chances. Those small birds too, those butterflies and bees. When we watch them I think they must feel an unnerving pull, as though they were drowning but still able to breathe, as though a strange energy were rearranging everything just a little, including the air.
Once as a child I walked through a field of tall grass to a row of dark trees whose air was so cool it frightened me a little. The mushrooms looked like the bones of someone who wasn’t completely decomposed, and the house I’d walked from looked hazy in the distance, as if it were floating slightly off the ground. So I picked up a twig and kissed it--to give it magic--then hid it beneath a loaf-sized stone and started back to the house. And as I walked back, I saw my father and grandfather, smoking pipes, walking toward me through the grass. They were talking, both of them, with their teeth firmly clamped on their pipes, so their voices sounded muffled and annoyed. But they weren’t annoyed at all! They’d found a turtle in the front garden and they wanted to show me. So I held their hands and we walked back together through that tall grass that was buzzing with small lives. I loved the smell of their pipe smoke; my grandfather smelled of hair-oil and leather, which I loved too. My brother was napping in that big house, alone in the bed we shared, surrounded by feathers we’d collected every morning before the dew had dried. My mother was reading on the shady back porch, reading and crying until she’d disappeared, while her mother—my grandma—snapped bones for the broth we would sip so discreetly after cocktails in the den. There were crows in the attic, like old photograph albums, singing their darkness, an ancient tapestry. Since the windows were open, they could fly out when they needed to, pulling the night-world behind them.
I’ve heard this: In every cell there’s something like a universe, energies and relationships that function like our stars and planets, like our light and lives. And these cells, in relationship, are the only world we can truly know. But what about the universe inside each of these cells? Could we somehow, someday, slip in there and live, for one tiny moment, as a moment in that universe? What would we see there? And what about those cells inside the cells inside us? Are they universes too? What’s time there? What’s distance? What’s love? Inside our bodies, in the secret places, there are large-shouldered animals moving slowly through the tall grass, watched over by wolves whose breath can be seen as the dusk-air grows cool. There has never been a human there, but somehow we can listen to the shuffle of these huge beasts’ legs as they move, and we can hear their hooves step lightly. That’s how many of them there are, right now inside us, moving across the landscape. Each heartbeat in each of their bodies beats inside us, deeper than anyone has ever ventured, or ever will.
I’m out of fire, someone says to the trees, and I’m almost out of air. I see him standing there on the sidewalk; hear him from my lawn chair nestled almost in the bushes. Now he leans and picks up a pebble, marble-shoots it straight up in the air and stands there watching it rise and fall, a man about my age, who hasn’t noticed me. Then he mutters, oh the hell with it, and walks quickly on, as though going somewhere in a hurry. I am reading Jack Gilbert, who died a few months ago, listening carefully to his language-carvings in the still air, wondering at the urgency of everything he said, at the seed-urgent pull of his need for primal love, the love that makes us cry in our fingerprints and teeth, for the taste of the mica in the stone. I know so few of the creatures around me, buzzing and humming and yearning to eat me, going about their supremely healthy lives. I am only what I am now, whispers of the larger breath. And no one else passes on the sidewalk for hours, and no one else drives down the street, though many birds continue to fly overhead, some so high all I can see of them is blue.
And if I took the same walk every day for a year, what would I see there and who would I be? There is evidence of broken bones, broken bottles, broken wings. Everywhere we look there are reasons to go home. If I took the same walk every day for a decade, one phase of my life to another, would I learn something valuable about memory and pain? I am almost myself almost all of the time, almost never myself completely. But what does that mean to the mouse in my study, behind the chair I read in, and what does that matter to the wind through the trees, which ruffles the fur on the squirrel who chatters at the shadows moving across the lawn? The grass in another world grows without stopping, deeper and deeper until each blade is like a tree, and the forest is tight and flimsy and green, and the light that shines through it feels hollow, like a bone. Mind is a dream, like the moon in the trees when the trees shift and sway, just a little, in the breeze. But is there anything anywhere that lives without mind? Is that snail not singing as he glides across the sidewalk into the fresh-cut, dewy evening grass?
Michael Hettich’s recent books include Systems of Vanishing (2014, winner of the Tampa Review Prize in Poetry), The Animals Beyond Us (2011), and Like Happiness (2010). His poems have appeared in such journals as Orion, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Poetry East, and Alaska Quarterly Review. He lives in Miami.