Mudlark Poster No. 143 (2017)

The Hatchet of the Minute
Poems by Roger Mitchell

Holding A Stick | The Poet I Didn’t Know | Cab Ride
Hair Cut | On The Case | Letter to Bert | Sometimes the Grass
Clancy’s Goat | An Understanding | Scratched Door

Holding A Stick

I’ve never read the works
of the great Somali poet,
Samatar Baxnaan,
not a single poem, line
or word. But I have had
his picture next to my desk
for thirty years. I knew,
when I saw it somewhere—
a magazine, I suppose—
that that’s what I meant
all those years ago
when I said, in complete
ignorance, I will be that, 
if I can, a man sitting
in a chair, clothes draped
loosely around my body,
holding a stick in hands
pared down to the bones.
In back of me, a wall of sticks.
Beneath, my old friend, dirt.
My eyes are somewhere
behind those gray glasses
falling off my nose.
And yes, I’m happy,
particularly so,
since you dropped by.

The Poet I Didn’t Know

I was introduced one night
at a famous poet’s reading,
London, the seventies, 
the two of us part of the audience.
It was an intermission 
or something, he and his wife
sharing a tiny table with me
against the wall, and she,
when I didn’t know, quite,
who the man was
we were both drinking with,
severely but silently
accused me of what
I would later agree
was an unthinkable crime
to Alan Ross. Whose poems
I would later learn,
of war-time service
in the North Atlantic,
if you made a few changes
of name and equipment,
read like bits of the Odyssey
Homer mistakenly crossed out,
what it was to be
forever at sea, a member
of the crew, a nobody,
with home a distant fiction.
Here’s to you, Alan Ross,
dead though you now are,
the poet I didn’t know
when I shook his hand.

Cab Ride

She stood beside a stack of boxes
at the curb, guarding all that was left 
of a life suddenly blown apart. 
The dispatcher had warned me
her voice was shaky on the phone.
She said she had no one to go to
and less of an idea where.
I told her The Sunshine Motel 
had low rates and no interest
in anybody’s history.
Fine, she said. I helped carry 
her boxes into the unit, trying
not to pry, but still let her know
by smile, tone of voice, mention
of the weather, that I cared,
even understood. I couldn’t,
of course, but I knew something,
something unforeseen, terrible even,
cruel. I wanted her to know
what I wanted to know myself,
what I knew I would someday need,
something so foolish I blushed
saying it, even then. You will
survive whatever it is now
you think you can’t. And, hoping
to arouse some intractable force
on both of our behalves, 
I thanked her for the tip 
but gave it back.
		          In Boulder,
nineteen sixty-one, when even
the world didn’t know what it was,
she took a taxi like a pill,
passed the memory of it on
to someone who thought he had seen
what it turned out he had,
an intimation of the slow
adjustment to the curb, eyeless
faces flashing past, little
but the minute in your pocket.


I wasn’t looking for a haircut, but I found one. At Bud’s.
Bud wasn’t there, but his two female associates were,
both sitting in their barber’s chairs, one reading the paper
to the other. I sat down in the near chair and listened
to the other read recipes on what to do with pumpkins,
if you had, as people always do, more than they know
what to do with. Pumpkin jam, pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin wine,
the list went on, longer than my haircut which was over
in eight minutes, nine at the most. I couldn’t believe it.
It was like I had been given ten minutes of my life back,
minutes I was going to have to spend in the chair
listening to a few of the things that people like to have
on their minds, especially when the country and the world
seem about to fall into a state almost no one can remember:
simple, plain, doing with less and liking it, making
out of it a story of heroic prudence and patience.
We’ve all heard this story a thousand times, and some,
like myself, have even told it, though I was never there.
I like the idea of getting along on less, though I don’t.
I seem to need more, though when I ask myself why,
I forget the answer or look out the window.
I go get another cup of tea or a cracker. At the very least,
I turn on a switch which sucks electricity up
off some grid along the Hudson where the Hudson
itself has been drafted into the army of my providers
to cool down a nuclear reactor and incidentally
light up a few thousand radioactive fish. Men fish there.
So do birds. Tugboats push barges up and down.
I’m not sure what’s in those barges, but it looks gray
and used, disappointed you might say, on its way
to some ocean or other, some coral reef, some beach
where the mothers will have to yell at their children,
get out of the water, it’s got shit in it, or something.
I hate thinking of mothers yelling the word shit
to their children, but what choice do they have?
“Defecation?” “Doo doo?” “Bad stuff?” Bring back
the beaches of our youths, America. Or should I say,
“World?” That’s the story they ought to print in the paper.
Forget the pumpkins. Of course, the haircut might slow down
if they do, take all day, while everybody weighed in
with an opinion. That’s the good thing about pumpkins.
They’re hard to have an opinion about. They’re orange.
But as soon as you say that, somebody will bring up
The Battle of the Boyne, and everybody will say, what?

On the Case

They were looking in my direction
as I crossed the street. Four men,
boys really, standing next to the door,
smoking. My first negotiation,
getting past them into the store.
I didn’t want to look at them
too closely or seem interested
in why they were standing there.
It was none of my business,
and I wanted it kept that way.
I passed on in with a glance
up the street. Let them see
I was there for a purpose
that didn’t include whatever
clammed them up as I went by.
For an hour or so, I wandered
the store’s narrow alleys, littered
with used books, paperbacks mostly,
meringues whipped into a froth
in a matter of weeks, shoved in
at all angles, stacked on the floor.
It was a small place in a small town
trying to stay alive. Out front,
they were doing the same thing.
The border was forty miles away,
the place almost evacuated.
People were getting out.
Down at the end of the row,
where they squeezed a random
assortment of poets between
a broken air-conditioner
and a toilet that wouldn’t stop flushing,
I found what I was after:
Hugh Kenner’s early book on Pound.
Never been read. Or, if it had,
whoever it was wanted to keep it 
a secret. Why would anyone do that,
I wondered. Nobody answered.
It was in mint condition. He
(or maybe she) left no trace,
the wrapper barely crumbled
along the edges. Inside, the pages
had picked up the faintest tan.
The acids were breaking down 
the fibers. Down in the trough,
it was musty. It smelled like home brew,
that bilge you choke down smiling
simply because you made it.
Here it was, though, the book
that started an industry. My job? 
Find out whose it had been,
who it was that thought life 
in this town might someday take on
the quality of Italian marble,
the lull of the Mediterranean Sea
in the rush and thrash of the Oswagatchie,
instead of this odor of airless rooms
over a run-down Taco Bell.
He was a dreamer, whoever he was,
and he gave it away at the end,
as any decent dreamer would.
But there it was, stuck like a splinter
deep in the palm of a small town
struggling to know what it was,
what it was fighting, and why.
I put it back on the shelf.
I couldn’t take it away.
The town needed it more than I did.
I bought an Elmore Leonard instead,
something about Cuba or L.A.,
places I’d read about, 
pages as well-thumbed
as the places they described.

Letter To Bert

I don’t come down into the city just
for coffee and a bagel at Shalom Chai,
for a little pretending to belong,
though as the sign inside says in large letters,
it is under the direct supervision
of Rabbi Pinchos D. Horowitz
(Chuster Rav) and often patronized
by small clusters of the local Hasidim.
Nor do I take the long slow train ride down
along the Hudson, so close to it ducks
look up in wonder, geese seem interrupted,
to listen to the laughter and complaint
of people who, I think, invented both.
The Mets would blush to hear what love and hate
they spawn. Death would cower, if it knew how,
to be so starkly ridiculed, defied,
and then like a lover in an argument,
made up to, a lover you hurt terribly,
who knows you’ll never make it up, no,
not all the way, not if you live forever,
yet still turns her head toward you at the end.
I watch this happening in your poems now,
Death become someone you have to court,
this time for nothing more than living well.
I listen in on the holy kvetching,
the lyrical arraignment of the end,
hoping to catch the lilt of it, the jab.
You should see the quickness of the cook’s knife here,
slicing my bagel sideways. He misses the tips
of his fingers this much, then fills my cup
so full I burn my lip on the first sip.

Sometimes The Grass

Sometimes the Monarch butterfly,
which goes past in a manner
no other thing has thought of,
not even the day, or the cars
hidden beyond the trees,
which pass so as to leave
constantly on the air
the sandy noise of their going,
I want to say nowhere,
since the noise is constant, 
but nowhere doesn’t exist, 
especially if you live there.
Sometimes the grass waves,
and the lanky clusters
of yellow flowers bob
in a way I’m beginning
to imitate, though if the wind
is gentle enough, they sway
instead, singing to themselves,
and the grass sometimes listens,
and sometimes doesn’t, content
to be grass sometimes,
but sometimes prefers
to dance the way people do
with the curtains drawn
and nobody home but you.

Clancy’s Goat


He never went anywhere, barber or bar,
without Giselle. A discreet goat, her hooves

clattered only a little on the cobble.
She didn’t snatch, too, when you gave her things,

though she looked right at you, as if you’d not
remembered something, or weren’t fast enough

pulling out of your pocket or purse
your last gum drop or shred of potato

peeling. Piece of string, for that matter.
Clancy himself would give her a lick of suds

off the top of his pint. That was the way
it was back then. We tried not to impose

too much on one another. Coal was costly,
so we burned peat. Everyone wore wool.

A terrible, comforting smell when wet,
wool. Forgive me, the cough comes on me hard

this time of year. Too much breathing, I suppose.
You won’t find too many left who knew her.

People keep to themselves here. If we didn’t,
we’d have no selves to keep. Or stories to tell.

She was half wild but cared for her father
till he died, talked him down from the tree

like a leaf that needed reminding
which way to go. After that, she left.


Clancy knew her, of course. Everyone did.
A woman that beautiful, and alone.

If you said hello, she would almost smile.
You can do it all with your eyes, you know.

If you pour yourself out before your foot’s
out of the taxi, people step nimbly

over the spill on their way to the door.
Hold back, and they start keeping a log.

Her father came home from the war with steel
splinters in his mind. He stayed at home,

never went out. Nobody came around.
They were afraid to know what the truth was,

though they didn’t hesitate to speculate.
Clancy, though, he was smitten, sorely. 

He took up the fiddle, resined the bow,
and sang the old songs in a wailing screech.

He didn’t care that we listened in, smiled
and rolled our eyes, stuck to our sanity.

But you could hear the sleeping lizards breathe
when he drew his bow across the strings.

Nineteen tones vied for the right to carry
uncomplicated love across the grass.


Many of the songs were his, maybe most.
Not quite love songs, love still passed through them.

He liked the minor key, avoided speed,
and though I couldn’t always hear the words,

they seemed to pull against themselves,
the shadows lifting and rain brightening

everything it fell on. Light was never still
in Clancy’s songs. It crept up behind things.

Water is a great divider, he sang,
and divine. I wish I’d written them down.

One I recall had a hatchet in it.
I can’t sing, but some of the words went like this:

I left the town I loved behind
and all the people in it,
but I never forgot the day, the hour,
the hatchet of the minute,
when the moon sank beneath the hill
and took the hill down with it.

He’d repeat the last two lines twice,
slowing it down, preparing the moment

of the song’s departure, when it left us
the way his songs often left us, alone

in a great pool of silence he’d conjured
out of cat gut and leaving a thing unsaid.

An Understanding

        And even I can remember
        A day when the historians left blanks in their writings
                          — Pound, Canto XIII
On some days there was nothing to put in the journal,
not because nothing happened,
but because whatever happened took everything with it.
Sometimes all that was left
was the need to turn away, to forget
for the moment, to sleep
and try again.
                         Though since nothing
is ever entirely the same the day after,
the trying again was a starting over,
the same words in the same mouths,
the same need gnawing at the same crumbs
until the hunger left and the words rose
like a boil of alerted geese leaving a marsh,
and the marsh, disturbed for a moment,
settling into the silence things do
when they come into an understanding,
though not necessarily the one sought for. 

Scratched Door

            for Jackie
Dull glow of dawnlight
over the frosted grass.
No wind. Everything still.
Up before me, the dog
stares out the window,
my borrowed dog,
whose life I marvel at,
so dependent on mine,
but calm, who throws herself
at my feet, to play, wrestle,
roughhouse, who barked
at the man who came
to the door yesterday,
who watches every bite
enter my mouth, who wags
her tail from the neck down,
knows when I want peace
and so begs to be let out,
sniffs the air for a minute
and then asks to be let in.
The door, scratched in memory 
of the interruptions we measure
our day by, the coming
and going. If I look in her eye, 
that’s it. It’s go-get-a-toy-
and-play time. It’s horse-around-
of-the-last-stuffed-animal time.
She knows where the heart is,
the squeaker, rips it out
in an instant, shredding
the bear, the monkey,
the psychedelic alligator.
And carries her stick
like a big cheroot, out
at one end, when we walk
through the tall grass
and the bramble, scratchy,
where deer have passed the night
or a bear dropped scat
by the path. She sniffs it all.
I wish I knew as much
as her nose, and I see her sit
upright and gazing on the couch
at nothing and wonder
at a mind so composed
it seems to stop at the chair
across the room or the heater
coming on again and thinks
the thought that must lie
at the end of thinking, the one
for which all this getting up
in the morning and going
to bed at night seems to be
about, which a dumb animal
keeps on the tip of her tongue,
the one she licks the palm
of my hand with for ten
or more minutes at a time
in long soulful strokes.

Besides The One Good Bite in the Saw-Grass Plant, Roger Mitchell is the author of ten other books of poetry, among them Lemon Peeled the Moment Before: New and Selected Poems. Two previous books include Half/Mask (2007) and Delicate Bait (2003). New work can be found in Tar River Poetry, Hotel Amerika, Otoliths, Blueline and Innisfree Poetry Journal. His work will also appear in The Zoo of the New: Poems to Read Now, Ed. Don Patterson and Nick Laird, an anthology soon to be released in the Penguin Modern Classics series. He is Poetry Editor for the ezine, Hamilton Stone Review, and lives in Jay, New York, with his wife, the fiction writer Dorian Gossy.

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