Mike Smith, a native of Philippi, West Virginia, teaches at Delta State University, where he also serves as editor of Tapestry, a literary journal focusing on the Mississippi Delta. He’s published three collections of poetry, including Byron in Baghdad (2012) and Multiverse (2010), both from BlazeVOX Books. In addition, his translation of Goethe’s Faust: A Tragedy, appears from Shearsman Books. He maintains an author page here.
Lessons in Reading
My childhood friend has grown big, finally
a fighter not a scrapper, and so far
from what I am. He is the seasoned soldier
I buy beer when he comes through town. He says
it does him good to see me. Soft as
I ever was, softer after all these years,
I sing, but not aloud. I believe him.
This time, he read stories to his boys, folktales
from a book he picked up in a stall. In one,
a girl marries a lion, but with some help
from her family comes out all right in the end.
With strong and noble sons. (It was the smell
that gave the beast away.) In another,
a woman lives alone except for her cat,
which purrs at the small shadows that form
in the small corners of her house. Then, one night,
a shadow whispers her to bed, where, because
she asks no questions and keeps a warm
and generous hearth, she wakes to a reward
of rare and delicate handiwork next morning.
My friend says he has been the lion, and
is now the little man. I say I’ve been
Wallace Stevens, but it’s a bad joke. Wallace
Stevens hated the likes of me, hated the likes
of us both, hated you, too, whoever you are,
preferring the caw and colors of the toucan.
I’ve never seen one in the wild. Had he?
I know not to ask what my friend has seen.
Death might be a lion.
Death might be a little man.
Our neighbor’s fenced magnolia was pretty
and a perfect tree to climb, but not to be seen
isn’t easy at any age. Its leaves were like
bowls upended—like beetles’ backs—blossoms
like blossoms on a cake. That day, my friend
was with me, but he was faster. I had forgotten.
Shed leaves around the trunk the shape of boats.
Blossoms the color of the plush of satin.
My friend says the trick is to endure yourself
long enough you can get away with anything.
I say Death, the little man, came near me once,
but my eyes were closed. He took my love instead.
Bud like the button on a satin pillow.
Leaf like a lid.
Capital, she would cry, just to hear
her companion’s cool laughter,
its memory of warmth.
Once, for a friend’s party, we filled
the car with balloons. Then they got away
from us and we left the road.
The kindly couple found us dazed
and unhurt. Their pear tree
hadn’t borne fruit for years, they said,
but that day it blossomed brightly.
The old photo ages
in my hands. Like looking back
through a screen door. Leaves
and backyard blossoms and
your mother with our child behind us
on the red walk. Love, even now
I hope she does not fall.
Orange sky. Bent trees and one loose pane…
So what sign is he? Doormat.
Fishy laugh. Laughs and the clink
of drinks all around. Above
the bar, the news pours in. Cloaks
of proper conduct, fresh habits
of desire. Always, the child;
always the scarred and hungry hand.
Another round, sir, when you can.
The cardinal lies in the middle
of the road. Bright bird. You don’t
see that often. His brown mate
flits in the gutter. Intake. Our mouths speak
through gauze. The wings are moving.
Or is it the wind, breeze in the brain?
Every eye blinks.
Mine closed the moment before your heart
stopped beating. I dreamed I pulled
a rabbit from a hat. It’s true. I washed
your face, so cold it started me speaking.
It doesn’t matter what I said.
The obese man works through
his worker’s gloves to fit
the narrow strip of metal
where it needs to go, so he
can raise to the street lamp
his younger partner—who leans
over the wall of the cage—
and begin the real work
of the morning. And it’s cold,
colder than it ought to be,
even in January.
I am sipping good coffee
from a paper cup, watching
as a runner weaves between
the cones, splashing a smile
across his face. He is not
built for running, and so
the workers half smile back.
It’s been two years, my love.
I’d rather drink from one
of those puddles than from
this cup. I’d rather lick
the length of that cold strip.