The Distance Birds Fly Through the Dark
Poems by Michael Hettich

The Poet | Elegy | A Window | Measure

The Poet

decides to enter a foreign language 
	by moving abroad and wandering the strange
		city’s maze of streets until 
	he’s lost and has to ask directions 
back to his hotel—and since he doesn’t understand 
	anything they tell him, he gets more lost—

		and when he finally arrives, after 
	midnight, he climbs to his room, turns 
the shower to scalding, faces his naked 
	self in the mirror, and mimics what he’s seen 
		and heard as he wandered, until the mirror’s 
	so fogged he can’t see himself. Then he goes out again.

			Back home they remember him only rarely, 
		when they look at the snapshots or notice the old
			clothes in his closet, which smell like just-mown 
		grass and open windows. 
						And when
	he’s found a job and learned to walk
and gesture like they do here, he wanders 

	to the edge of the city, looks up at the moon 
		and imagines men landing there, setting up shop, 
	beginning to figure out how to market 
that desolate landscape—and he misses what he can’t 
	say in this foreign language, and he wonders 
		if a person could stand so still he might be 

	invisible, so he tries that, thinking 
of trees, and pebbles, and clouds.


Forgive me, she says now, dropping her children’s 
	baby teeth along the path 

to guide them all home: earrings and dandruff 
	to identify her days, light bulbs that flicker 
in her basement while she sleeps. She thinks she once walked

into a tunnel beneath the city
	and lost her colors. Another night you dreamed 
she’d given you a dictionary that translated everything 
		into a language no one’s ever spoken, 

	a forest of ghost trees: Now she is a stone 
you keep on the mantle and pick up sometimes 
	to feel the weight of nothing—

but your father was one of those fires that never 
goes out, a flame that burns in your pillow.

	So you stay awake for years, until your windows sing 
		in his voice, look through me to see. You look 

	like a scarecrow as you walk, a clown no one laughs at, 
		or an actor strutting a stage-set toward 
	a phony wilderness, searching for your kidnapped 
wife and children. You hold a hankie 

to your nose for the scent of your wife’s perfume,
to help you find her. You breathe to remember

		you were once a city kid playing punk guitar, 
	snarling two-minute ditties, a skateboard-
showoff and the kind of long-distance runner 
	who grows more skinny each mile. But now 

		your mouth is bleeding like it did the first time 
	you kissed her. She bit, and claimed it was mere 
infatuation. So you burned the hair off 
	your forearms to impress her 
		and showed her your closet 
of fishhooks. The movies you watched those first days 

are your most vivid memories, not counting the children, 
who looked like bats when they flew from her body
to cling to your clothes and hair as you walked

	holding hands, imagining a cottage 
in the country, with a pond full of frogs, and you croaked 

	like a horny bullfrog to explain to your wife 
	the pleasures of real dark, and silence.

Then your children flew off into the dusk-light to feast. 

Your wife was as pale as an underground insect, 
milky as the unspoken folds in our bodies.   

When it rained, her clothes melted away
and you lusted for a taste of her, like waking in a cave 

so deep the light’s never reached there, and the animals 
are real and not-real at the same time, like children.

And if you keep walking your bones will snap,
and if you keep walking, dreams will be your cataracts.

All you’ll be able to do then is melt 

as the cave drips its ancient water from a spring 
humans-not-quite-fully-human once drank from

when we still wore fur. And now you think

you smell their ancient human funk 
in the darkness. You follow that smell. The world 

can’t end as long as it stinks, but still
you hold your wife’s hankie to your face as you walk
and breathe through your mouth. Someone’s dreaming fish bones

pushing through moldy flesh, someone’s dreaming 
mushrooms in your body. If you lay down 
right here and thought about nothing, you might 

learn to be a river moving through the darkness,  
full of blind fish whose bones we can see 
through their quivering scales. If you lay down long enough

your body would carve a scar into the ground
as it flowed downhill, toward the ocean. 

	Now you remember when you lived another language,  
when you and your wife took your clothes off and waded 

	across the freezing river to wander 
	a boulder field looking for the angels.
Your body up almost to your heart went numb 

	but you made it to the other side. If you could meet a wolf,
how would you address her? But there are no wolves here.

If you could meet the glinting dust. But it has all been blown away.

If you could meet the animal you truly are, beyond 
	your little human rhythm-dream: 

					There’s an echo. Now it’s gone. 

So we turned to ghosts as we walked through that river
as the river fell into a pool so cold 
our teeth went numb. Leave yourself in the path. 
You were only part-real anyway, and so

you were doubly lost. The search party never found 
anything to name you. But there are ashes in the tree
you sat beneath reading 
the notebook you’d found
at the bottom of your mother’s secret trunk

where she’d written many names to describe you: I am not 
clouds raining sawdust or a fire in the attic 
that burns all the keepsakes; I am not an eel 
writhing at the foot of your bed. I am not 

a ravenous dog tearing through the garbage cans 
just before first light, and I’m not some swollen tick. 

You still remember when she slept so late 
the game was over by the time you arrived 

at the field; you remember listening 
while she sang to herself in the kitchen. 

You keep the urn of her ashes in the crawl space 
where no one ever goes,

but you still need her, like those ashes need the fire 
they came from: evidence of burning.

A Window

broken by the moon, a bleeding pigeon 
thrashing on the sidewalk, your dead friend’s shoes, 
that fit when you don’t have to walk, or when 
your breathing reminds you 
of the days he sang 

out-of-tune pop songs. You tried to sing harmony—
wind above the trees, that pushes the same moon 
toward the horizon, where a man dreams of fur

and barks so convincingly 
real dogs believe him: 

Soon the whole kennel is howling, keeping 
everyone awake. But then again, the trees, 

and then again the fields 
that push up against the woods 
we’d hide in, growing wild and opening
the windows behind our eyes, as the planets

howled through the sky to remind us of the time
before things happened, that ancient moment 
standing at that wood’s edge watching the rain 
that’s fallen forever. The past in our marrow, 

those hurt dogs howling at the moon inside 
our bodies—until we wake somewhere 
impossible, as though we were grasses whispering
in a gentle wind. And then the wind falls still.


Before certain colors were born inside 
	the body, those colors 
		that breathe in the dark, 

	we imagined we could crawl up 
		inside our own bones
and listen to our heartbeat; we let ourselves get lost

		inside the languages of not-self, until 
	we understood physical syntax, like dance 

or the distance birds fly through the dark, and we tried 

	to touch what was regal 
		with life as we traced 

			the crack in the stone 
		where water had seeped
			for millennia, opening darkness—.

Michael Hettich has published a dozen books of poetry and an equal number of chapbooks. His most recent book, To Start an Orchard, was published in September 2019 by Press 53. A long-time resident of Miami, he moved to Black Mountain, NC, in 2018. His website is

Other Mudlarks by Michael Hettich: Measuring the Days, Chap No. 40 (2010); Nature and Other Poems, Poster No. 128 (2015) and Recording; from Any Shore by Dusk Light, Poster No. 108 (2013); Howling at the Moon, Poster No. 34 (2001) and Recording; The Moon Beneath The House, Poster No. 108 (2013); and The Point of Touching and Moving Bodies, Poster No. 15 (1998).

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