The Flood cover

The Flood

Michael Hettich

Copyright © 2011 Michael Hettich. All rights reserved.

for Tom Virgin

A man is his totem, the animal of his mind.
—Hayden Carruth

Once I Had a Breath

Once I carried a breath inside me
until it became its own small world
where another person lived
as someone like myself
if my body were a breath.
There was a field with trees,
and the air beyond my breath
was so clear it was nothing,
like time. And I didn't
have to see through it
to see.
The air was my eyes,
and the river that wound
through the grass was brimming
with secrets I thought
I might know if I lay down
and let it flow across me
for a while.

Speaking My Own Name

John Cage once said the quiet sounds
were like loneliness, or love, or friendship.
Without poverty of spirit, he said, one loses
the kingdom of heaven. One recent afternoon
a man was sitting in my garden, writing
in a little notebook. I watched from the kitchen
for a while, watched the way he let the mosquitoes
cover his face and arms while he wrote,
the way birds landed around him, mourning
doves and cardinals, the way the shy cat
jumped onto the back of his neck to purr.
Then he stood and walked away, leaping
easily over my garden wall,
and I noticed that he'd left his notebook behind:
An early June morning after heavy rain
I found snakeskin after snakeskin lying in the grass.
Some of them were whole, as if the snake had slipped right out.
Some of them were torn up and shredded.
And I who greet no one, except perhaps the common birds.

Loving a Good Woman

Something in the rush of joyful surprise
through my body when I came across the black snake
sunning on the terrace, which slid into the grass,
something of the energy vivid in the air
made me feel invisible, as though I'd turned sideways
and slipped through some fissure in the universe, as though
I could feel my own thoughts. And I felt for a moment
like a branch in a river, feeling that pull
and hardly being able to lift myself above it
but practicing slowly, slowly, until
I could also feel the wind standing empty in the stillness,
I could feel the breezes trapped inside a stone,
I could feel the distance those small birds fly.
Crack open the nut of things and taste the living meat.
I listened for that snake so I could hear its eggs
waiting to hatch, full of little snakes,
so I could watch them too. But I knew I'd never find them
hiding in the bushes, in the folds of grass.
Where does the sweetness in this sap come from, anyway?
Who is alive now, and singing in our blood?

The Flood

You're capturing something elusive, something
you're not always sure of, and you're trying to
capture it before it vanishes.

—Philip Pearlstein

During a lull in the rain, I took a walk to the marsh, just to be outside, and found a bedraggled little dog running circles around a man who lay amidst a clutter of tide debris. He wore an overcoat, shoes without socks, and refused help or money before I'd offered. When he asked my name I remembered my parents and answered don't have one, then asked about the dog: why was he so small; why didn't he bark? But the man said the runt wasn't his, was just another kind of lie I hadn't learned to tell yet. He told me he didn't have a name either, that he stayed too busy to engage in such vanity. Then he turned away, sighing, and fell back to sleep, and the rain resumed falling, even harder than before.
So I ran home, followed by that secret little dog.
By the time I arrived, the water had risen into the kitchen; my parents were lolling on the floor, splashing each other and trying to teach my little sister how to swim. In the living room my brother sat naked in water up to his chin and watched our brand-new color TV, which seemed to work fine, even half-submerged: Another sort of miracle. The house smelled of turkey and mashed potatoes, fresh-brewed coffee and apple pie.
Then my parents were doing the dead man's float, holding their breath so long that my sister was quietly starting to cry. In another room the phone was ringing, so I waded down the hallway to answer, hoping it would fall silent before I arrived.
So much rain this year, she tells us, fish have started surfacing from their deep pools underground, up through caves and coral and soil, into the puddles that are flooding our gardens. When I wade through the back yard to the alley to dump the garbage, fish thrash and splash me and sometimes cause me to drop the garbage bag, which they ravenously rip to shreds. Soon we may be swimming off our back porch. And then the rains will stop, as they always do in winter, and we will plant our garden, fertilized this year by the fish which will have died and rotted—unless they are able to slip back down into their underground grottoes. Pelicans and anhinga have landed in our oak trees.
Our son comes home early from school these days, sits on the back porch and fishes until evening falls, when he should be doing his homework. He always catches something, which we fillet and fry up for dinner, though we don't much like the taste. Sometimes he lays fresh-caught fish out on the wall that surrounds our garden, or he tosses them up into the branches of our trees and sits silently on the wall there, waiting for the birds. He waits there as the sun sets while we bustle around the kitchen, cooking dinner or listening to the weather, to the news, or to old songs that still make us feel like children, pleased by simple harmonies, proud to know each word.
Do you feel the deep breaths that move through your body, she wonders, do you know who sings at the back of your head? My memory is faulty, but my hopes are eternal, like the foxes that set out at dusk. They dance and forage around our neighborhood while we're shut up inside eating dinner. And when I say dance, I mean it, she says: have you ever seen them jump for a bird which has swooped low to the ground, and catch it?
She tells us she understands music much more deeply since that afternoon she fell off the high dive while no one was looking, hit her head on a kick board in the water and went down. Now she knows harmony and dissonance as well as she knows how to chew her food, and she knows all the words of jazz standards and even the most obscure operas, in their original languages. She says she doesn't even like that kind of music and starts to sing in other voices, back and forth, in harmony.
We sat at the end of a concrete pier that stretched out into the St. Johns River and watched black skimmers circle, bottom half of their beaks zipping through the water, making a soft hiss, like gentle rain. In the grasses behind us, tall white birds stood still.
Years later we paddled kayaks out to a sand bar slung between two small islands where we could wade, watch birds, and gather shells. The water slapped from both directions, sending claps of small waves up into mist and breeze. We sat in the water there, rocking back and forth. Plovers flew near, rose up and fell into the waves, catching tiny food. A bedraggled pelican flew by, stabbing the swells but catching only water. High above, vultures and magnificent frigate birds moved in slow circles, almost out of sight.
So I lie back in the water and look up at the sky and wonder what I would say to you if we met today as strangers living one of the many different lives we could so easily have entered, many times, with one of our other loves. I think you'd live in Colorado or California, and I might have ended up anywhere. We'd both be married, and I think we'd both have children—so our own children wouldn't exist, except as other people. Maybe we'd both be spending a few nights here on the beach on our way somewhere else. There'd be a summer storm and our sons, who would be about the same age, would rent boards and surf the larger-than-usual waves while we stood at shore's edge and watched. You'd have a pair of binoculars I'd borrow to watch them. I think I'd notice your eyes. Maybe your husband would be sleeping off a bad mood and maybe my beautiful wife would be having her fingernails painted again. Maybe I'd ask you to body surf with me, which you would demurely decline, since you wouldn't swim well; and maybe it would start raining hard enough to make the sand dance and our sons hoot with pleasure.
I see them out there now, floating out beyond the swells on their rented surfboards, laughing and yelling back and forth to each other with the same vivid energy that connected us, so many years ago. They don't even know each other's names.
Or maybe your son meets my daughter somewhere else, in another city where she's living for the summer while she studies anthropology, art history, simple food and love. Maybe he asks her to take a walk with him. It's beautiful there, walking at dusk beside that river, watching swallows scribble and dance.
Maybe they talk about their parents as they walk or maybe they don't say anything at all.
In that life we'll meet each other at their wedding; in that other life that's when I'll ask you to dance.
—for Colleen

The Open House

Then one afternoon, when we opened all the windows
of that big house to the autumn's late afternoon chill
just to let the stuffy air free, just to let
that house feel the clean air inside itself, and a small bird
flew in and all through the rooms, never touching
anything, then flew back out another
window and was gone, and a cooler breeze
followed it then, and made the curtains sway
as though there were someone behind them, some child
we hadn't yet met, hiding like we sometimes did;
and then my father put a record on the stereo
because the evening was blowing through the house
like music, and we were all walking from room
to room just feeling the air, which was different
inside the house than out, though out there
the tang of the trees was more vivid, and the trees
held migrating birds and stars, and so my father
played a Benny Goodman tune he'd loved in the navy,
"Sing! Sing! Sing!"—the one with the Gene Krupa
solo to start it, a song that's pretty much
forgotten by now. We stood there in the darkening
room as the breezes whipped through; I could see
his eyes glistened brightly as he listened, though
I knew he wasn't crying—he'd loved that tune
in the navy he told us again, when he was
just a kid from Brooklyn. "Look at me now,"
he said with a smile in his voice, and I think
he danced just a little, though I couldn't tell for sure
since the room was truly dark by then. And then he put it on again.


Your days can line up one after the other
or they can be shuffled like a deck of cards.
You can look through your days like you'd look through a window
or a set of binoculars, or a list of "things to do."
The days can roll forward like breakers in a storm
or lap toward high-tide on a calm summer morning.
The days of your life could be a long saunter
through scenery you know well, with companions you love,
or they could be more like a short walk alone,
lost but amazed at the scenery.


Into Other Perfect Worlds

          We sat in the kitchen talking about journeys we intended someday to take, when we had more time and money. As we talked and drank tea, the day grew dark. We kept the lights off. The snow kept falling. We could hear voices and music from other parts of the house. We sat in the dark until we felt like photographs that had never been developed, taken to commemorate some barely-recollected occasion.
          And once we felt that way, we knew we could finally start speaking beyond words, until everyone else had gone to sleep and our voices no longer made any sound at all.
          Dead birds in the pine tree, tangled up in fishing line.
          The whole woods draped in plastic spider webs…
          In this morning's paper, a story about a scientist who's been able to calculate exactly how many ancestors each of us has had, how many human beings preceded us from the first Homo sapiens in our line. He claims he can go back thousands and even millions of years to the place where each of us starts.
          He's able to identify how many lives link up between that time and ours. And us.
          Soon, he says, he'll be able to go back even farther, to the near humans and then the non humans, all the way back to the grasses and the winds.
          You might as well try to bury your shadow in a stone, someone else says. You might as well spend your life preparing to fly.
          Years later, we paddled our kayaks out to the middle of the bay, to a sand bar slung between two small islands, where we could wade and gather shells and watch birds and talk without raising our voices. The water slapped from both directions, sending claps of small waves up.
          Plovers flew near, rose up and fell. No luck! No luck! A pelican stabbed at the water.
          Then we woke up together in the middle of the night and listened to the graceful wind-gestures move through the trees and ferns outside our open window, and listened to the creatures singing and grunting and making silence there. We hugged each other thankfully and fell back to sleep and then fell even further away. All night while we slept, the fruit in our yard—wild orange and carambola, papaya, avocado and dwarf banana, sapodilla and mango—grew full and ripe. Spiders wove their webs and waited. By that time both of us were dreaming, content for the moment and vividly alive, drifting down the rivers that flow through our bodies for thousands of miles, into other perfect worlds.

The Small Animals

Inside my body is another tiny me, smaller than a fingernail. But this person lives a few miles outside town, in a cottage in a field of tall grass with a small stream he can wade and even sit down in to cool off in when the day grows hot. The water is cold there as it runs over gravel from the wall of pines just a stone's throw away. Sometimes deer step from those trees at dusk when this other me is sitting on the back porch reading in the fading light, with a cup of tea. He wanders out sometimes in the near-dark and sits by the stream to look for the first stars. His wife stays inside, working at her loom, making tapestries and baby clothes, singing softly. Sometimes she works through the night and sleeps all the next day in their wood-paneled bedroom whose window looks out on the empty road. And no one plows that road in winter, so the other me inside me must walk all the way to town for supplies.
The food he brings back is delicious, and she is always waiting when he gets home—as though she'd forgotten who he is, what he looks like, and is pleased to meet him. Down in the basement the potatoes have started to grow with ever-greater urgency, aching for this other me to come down there and gather them. Up in the attic spider webs grow thick. Everyone thinks of these people with the names of trees, thinks of them turning vivid colors in the fall. We'll go out for a drive, someone says to his family, and visit the hills that are red and yellow-orange, and then we'll stop in town for cider and pie. The man and his wife wait for these visitors, though they live in that field of tall grass beside pine trees, whose colors never change much, only turning slightly darker.
Every morning before the neighborhood swimming pool opened, I helped the lifeguard collect the water rats he'd caught in the mousetraps that often only stunned them. He'd grab the rat's tail and drop the rat into a brown paper lunch bag, scrunch the bag closed, and chuck the bagged rat as far out into the harbor as he could. Proud of his arm, he claimed he could throw a rat as far as the low-tide islands. But I never watched. He had slicked-back black hair and a cigarette behind the ear, and he thought he sang falsetto like a do-whop star. So he screeched all afternoon up in his lifeguard chair, combing and petting his glistening hair, working on his suntan. He never swam: it messed up his pompadour. Years later I heard he'd gone off to Viet Nam, that he cried now uncontrollably and punched the empty air. He was probably just a few years older than I was, but I flushed with pride when he called out my name or gave me the thumbs up when I did jackknives off the diving board. And the girls I had secret crushes on stood at the foot of his lifeguard chair, faces turned up to him like sunflowers, giggling and snapping their fingers to the radio tunes they all sang along with, the songs I practiced at night that summer, in my basement bedroom, while my parents lumbered and mumbled upstairs, turning off the lights and locking the doors. Then they called down goodnight to me, one after the other. My brother and sister were already sleeping. I could hear small animals moving through the dark, just outside my window, and I wondered what their lives were like. So I turned off my light and just lay there, listening.

The Swallows

Since I don't know the names of the birds that sing
just before first light, when solitude is finest,
and since I hardly listen to them anyway, most mornings,
as I drink my first coffee and look through the books
I left open last night, and enter the world
of those thoughts or let them lie dormant, until
other birds start singing, birds whose names
I don't know either, whose habits I know
nothing of, whose nests are hidden where I've never seen
and never will, probably. Since the air is not a window
we look through but a world we're breathing, bringing
into our bodies and using to speak—
and since the best words we speak are filled with other birds
as real as anything else we could touch
or a door that could open to a form of endless absence
that makes everything hum, like a swarm of shiny insects
in the forest of language. And if we could sing then
silently, with them. It's like the swish of grass
or like the distant chattering we thought we heard
but maybe made up as we watched thousands
and thousands of swallows rise up and swirl back down
to splash into the lake for a moment, swirl back
into the sky, then down again—over
and over as they moved in a flock of ever higher loops
until they flew off and away, and the lake
lay flat again, reflecting only the sky,
as we fell back into our ordinary minds
and our bodies that were humming now, dangerously alive
in their meat and memories, and easily lost
in whatever moment came next, or the moment after that.

The Happiness of Trees

I slept that cool season on a screen porch by the bay
  with the creatures and insects singing so loudly
my mind seemed to join them—out there without me—
  to move around like a breeze from form to form
and then to return as a fox or a cicada,
  some other night creature, to slip back inside me
humming whatever it had heard, patterns
  I couldn't sing along with but felt inside
like the happiness of trees when a soft wind
  turns their leaves' underbellies up to the sky
and makes the sap rise. I loved to wake
  before myself, to silence and fog.
Sometimes I got up and walked out into the chilly grass
  to disappear and sometimes I turned over as though
this happiness might last forever, and slept
  just a while longer, until the first birds sang.



If my house could be lifted up like a game piece
and put into a box, closed up and put away
into a closet, another house might pop up
immediately there, and other people too.
And if you could lift that house up you might find
yet another house, not much different from the first two.
This could go on for days or even
weeks before the ground was bare.
Once I cut a tree down so I could plant a lawn
and found a whole forest standing there behind it.
Already my children were exploring its paths
and already my wife had her book of ferns
and her book of sacred berries and her sewing scissors
in her hands, for cutting small details in the fabric
of the woods. So I followed my family in there.
I was lonely and you touched me I kept thinking as I wandered.


"The Flood" was published in Origin.

Section one of "The Small Animals" was published in The Bloomsbury Review; section two in The Hamilton Stone Review.

"Loving a Good Woman" appeared in The Animals Beyond Us.

"The Happiness of Trees" was displayed as a banner in Everglades National Park during April of 2011.

The text of "The Flood" was made into a series of broadsides by Tom Virgin.

I am grateful for this support.

The other poems in The Flood are published here for the first time.

Michael Hettich

Michael Hettich’s books of poetry include A Small Boat, Flock & Shadow, Swimmer Dreams, and Like Happiness. A new collection, The Animals Beyond Us, has just been published by New Rivers Press. His most recent chapbook, The Measured Breathing, won the 2011 Swan Scythe Press chapbook contest. He has published in many journals and anthologies, and he has collaborated with visual artists and musicians. One of these collaborations with his son, Matthew Hettich, can be heard here. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Miami Dade College. His website is