On a Scale from Yes to No
Fall falls off the map,
a cliff at the far right edge,
the east at 3:00 am,
where light refuses to penetrate.
We are all getting older
but not at the same rate.
I watch my father shrink into himself.
The circles of his acquaintance
Narrow in circumference.
The lenses of our eyes harden
until we can’t see what is closest to us
unless we hold it at a distance.
Nouns evade us.
Our fat, stiff, trembling fingers betray us.
We say no more often.
In the east, off the map,
the sky gains color by degrees.
The light hardens
until we can’t see what comes after us in the distance.
Hold it close.
There is a sea
where everything we might have done drifts
amid thick stalks of kelp, rooted and swaying,
small fish darting in the dark,
swift against the slow ache
of larger tides.
For Max Steele
Early this month you began popping up from the dead,
With your It’s all about me smile,
That made you, at eighty, the rock star
Of the Whole Foods breakfast crowd.
I wondered why you were so insistent
About interrupting the month of August
Until I recalled that we were striding toward
The anniversary of your death,
The way you insisted we pretend to stride
Toward the camera, in the photograph
That sits on my desk, because
Movement makes a picture more interesting.
I went to visit you in the hospital,
Not to pay my last respects,
But with the intention
Of embarrassing you back to life.
You’d be so angry at me for seeing you—
Breathing tube, IV drip, backless gown—
That you’d have to come back
To tell me how rude I’d been.
You were the one who told me about the wonderful word
That inhabits half the parts of speech—
Exclamation, adjective, noun, verb—
As in the sentence, which pretty much describes
The way I feel today,
When you, four years dead and still insistent.
Inhabit half my waking thoughts:
Fuck, the fucking fuckers fucked it.
You were the one who told me
How halves multiply on a page
So if you write about one half of anything,
Sooner or later another half of something
Will have to come and join it, and another
Until you have a whole
Cocktail party of halves,
Catching up on all they missed while they were apart.
Yes for These Few Hours
In the barn, spare bedrooms, and all around the bonfire ashes,
guests from your friend’s party
are snoring off the half-lives of good beer and cheap wine.
The kitchen counters by the open door
are lined with half-filled mugs and glasses
where intoxicated insects have drowned.
It’s been hours since our host
climbed the stairs with his patient wife.
Wrapped in scavenged afghans, we occupy the couch
a rowboat in a sea of mess.
All has been yes for these few hours
in the middle of years of no or probably not or I just don’t know.
We’ve had two decades together apart—
apart, together. Every year I see you
on my continent in this one place.
Then you fly home to ring me up,
after closing time, drunk enough
to say come hither from three thousand miles away.
We’ve invented a language where we substitute other people’s names
for the things we can’t say about ourselves.
When you describe your friend’s colon cancer, you mean
things get twisted up inside you.
Now say morning won’t come.
I won’t have to look in clear light
at what we’ve done. The night
is drifting from your mouth to my hands, while outside
someone fries up bacon on a griddle.
Hangovers moan, cramped from awkward sleeping.
I only wanted a little more time, so I would know
that you would stay if I didn’t let you go.
Mimi Herman is the author of Logophilia and The Art of Learning. Her writing has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Crab Orchard Review, The Hollins Critic and other journals. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College, and has been a writer-in-residence at the Hermitage Artist Retreat and the Vermont Studio Center. Since 1990, she has engaged over 25,000 students and teachers in writing workshops. With John Yewell, Mimi offers Writeaways retreats for writers in France and Italy, and on the North Carolina coast. You can find her at www.mimiherman.com and at www.writeaways.com.
Q: Memory holds us together, keeps us apart in these poems. What is your earliest memory?
A: My earliest memory is sitting on the porch with my friend Luther, who took care of the old lady who lived next door. I’m guessing he was about 45 and I was about four. Aside from Pup-dog and my (female) pony, Jim, Luther was my best friend.
Q: Paper or screen? Pen or pencil or stylus?
A: Paper (white legal pads) for poetry, with lots of crossings-out and scribblings-in. I’ve finally weaned myself from paper to screen for writing novels—but it was a long and arduous process. Definitely pen—a fine Uni-Ball in black. I buy them by the dozen.
Q: Can you tell us a bit more about Max Steele?
A: Max was one of the great mentors in my life, who shaped me as a writer and probably as a person, too. I spent many hours in my junior and senior years at UNC-CH curled up in his office armchair, as he dispensed wisdom with the air of someone who is certain he is the wisest person in the room—which he generally was. Max was the consummate flirt, not for romantic gain, but to charm others by putting them on edge and at ease at the same time. I learned from him that characters in stories had to have jobs and pay rent. They couldn’t just live in some limbo-land. And I learned from him how to throw a perfect party: invite interesting people who have nothing in common and serve them foods that only you can procure. When I graduated from Carolina, Max stunned me by throwing a party for my family and friends. I still can’t think of him without wanting him back.
Q: Write one half, and another will come to join it – can you talk about how this works in your poems?
A: Literally, halves replicate on the page—though whether this is the power of suggestions or something deeper, I don’t know. I’ve never written the word “half” without another “half” appearing within a page or two of it. Metaphorically? I don’t know. I’m so charmed by the literal reproduction of halves, I’ve got half a mind not to go any further with it.