Adding it Up
There are more barrels of oil spewing into our waters
than the number of days you will live, or breaths
you will take; more barrels than times you will blink
your eyes. When you walk across a field, just think
of all the blades your feet crush. But the blades stand up tall again,
unless there’s too much walking.
Think of all the days you’ve lived in the half-light
of someday and maybe and when I find myself
Think of all the people you’ve touched without meaning to,
brushed up against in passing. Think of all the leaves
in any small forest, all the insects there. Think
of the breezes, of the fragrances they carry, the silences
inside them. The rivers and oceans you’ve tasted.
The windows you’ve opened; the doors you’ve walked through.
Your dust is scattered everywhere.
More barrels than that. This morning when I woke up,
so many birds were singing I couldn’t
ignore them, for once. Think of all the times
you’ve stood still to listen. Think of the times
you only heard chatter: Every heartbeat is the end
of something that is always ending and the start
of something else, something new. More barrels than that too.
The moon showed half-full in the cloudless afternoon
and we noticed that too, as we watched the horizon
and wondered when the oil would show, what it would look like
as it drifted in.
We imagined that oil
still spewing from its rupture a mile down, as we waded
tannin-dark rivers that flowed with the tides
from the dune lakes, as we watched the pelicans plunge
and the osprey swoop down, pull back–just missing–
to swoop up again. We were swimming there; we were
almost disappearing: as though we could dissolve
into that push-and-pull, climb out and make love
in the shade there, back where the small ponds, the black ponds,
shiver with breeze and insects.
And later that day, walking in the woods,
we came across a rattlesnake just killed by a garrulous
young man on a bicycle. The snake was beautiful,
as long as the dirt road we walked on was wide,
and as thick as an arm. The man had smashed its head
with a signpost he’d uprooted. The snake moved a little
and the man assured us it was dirt-dead—as though dirt
were the opposite of living. And of course we yearned to ask him
why he had killed it, but of course we didn’t,
not wanting to be rude, or to seem like the city slickers
we are. But then, as though he’d read our minds,
he told us he aimed to make a fancy belt,
and he started to try to lift the snake without
hurting its skin, to carry it home
on his bike, as the afternoon softened into dusk
and we walked on, more cautiously, looking at the ground.
The next day a female loggerhead, dead
in the surf, barnacle-crusted, killed
not by the oil—at least that’s what we heard—
but by shrimpers desperate to harvest as much
as possible before
the oil closed them down.
Someone had defaced her–red paint across her shell–
to keep track, evidently,
of our losses.
The small birds in the scrub-oaks
in the dunes were so quiet
we didn’t notice them at all
until we’d sat a while in silence.
At the art museum we watch a documentary collage
of the war in Bosnia: news footage that was not deemed
dramatic enough to broadcast back
when it was taken:
walk along dirt roads talking and putting
their arms around each other in friendship, while tanks
maneuver in the field there and empty-eyed men
holding guns like they might hold babies stand watching.
And then a pig with its tail blown away walks by
down the road as though nothing were wrong; and a group
of skinny shirtless men are shooting at a house
from behind a clump of wispy trees,
and a crouched man is nuzzled by a collie-sized mutt
while he shoots. The mutt licks the man’s face, licks the gun
and the man’s hand, licks his trigger finger.
The man holds his hand out to pet the dog
and flinches at something; he ducks back and starts
shooting while the dog ambles off unperturbed.
Women wearing city clothes and jewelry carry guns
and talk casually, like the men do; then they’re shooting
at something we can’t see, which shoots back.
And then the ruined farms
and towns, the people standing silent as they look
at everything smoking and burning. The old people
are walking calmly into their houses, which are smoking,
which will soon start to burn to the ground; they are gathering
whatever isn’t ruined already, which they pile
in the street. Some of the piles in the street are burning too.
The saw palmetto, that common shrub,
a scrub of a shrub, with berries no one seems to eat
with pleasure, this modest bush can live
500 years, even longer.
We’ll all be forgotten by then—I mean
not just you and I—us—but this whole
mess we are making, this civilization.
Will the wild creatures come back then?
Empty cities once powered by oil.
Perhaps some strange riddles, scrawled across the wind
trapped inside the branches of a broken-limbed forest,
trapped in those bare bones whose marrow was sucked dry,
whose birds grew too small to see without binoculars
once they understood us, really understood us
and made themselves grow smaller, to hide from us that way–.
which is otherwise known as extinction.
My wife and I make love in the warm afternoon
while small birds flicker
in the scrub-oak trees.
Our bodies are slack
and middle-aged and scarred.
Last night it rained hard. The spiderwebs still glisten
and the streets are still puddles. Those are frogs, I think,
singing from ponds in the woods, but perhaps
those aren’t frogs at all. I listen to them sing
as I hold my wife’s body. Every tree is blossoming
from last night’s rain.
And the oil is still gushing.
My wife and I are making love in our clumsy way,
with our old bodies in this lovely afternoon
full of flowers and frog songs and wonderful sweet smells.
And this might be the wound that will never stop bleeding.
This might be food without food: only air.
This might be the music that turns listeners silent.
This might be the photograph that kills your memories.
This might be the night that will never find today.
This might be the strange wound that will never stop bleeding.
This might be the knife that cuts the moon free
of the black cord it swings on. It swings on. You know
this might be the mushroom that grows inside your memories:
Taste it. This might be a swimming pool of tears.
This might be the tar pool that grows into a wishing-well
where a young boy drowned. This might be the thorns
anyone develops to keep the skin protected—
Don’t touch me. Such is the oil of your burning.
This might be the bread made from dandruff and coal
This might be the wound that becomes a tree
that blossoms at night, when you’re sleeping, the wound-tree
you can climb up into and sit up near the moon
and feel the way the breezes consider their lives
which are a lot like yours, after all, except
they vanish more quickly. But then of course they wake again.
Or this might be the viscous ancient darkness, come again.
–Grayton Beach, Florida, May 2-6, 2010
Michael Hettich’s two most recent books, FLOCK AND SHADOW and SWIMMER DREAMS, were both published in 2005. A new book of poems, LIKE HAPPINESS, is forthcoming in August from Anhinga Press. His poems have appeared in many journals, including ORION, THE SUN, WITNESS, PRAIRIE SCHOONER and POETRY EAST. He lives with his family in Miami and teaches at Miami Dade College.