Home                 Books                      Poems                                       Michael Hettich



From Systems of Vanishing



The Old Friend


calls to tell me he can’t see the same things

he saw yesterday; the book he was reading

last night has become an album of photographs

of his wife’s family back in the old country—

people he’s never even met—and his wife

herself has been replaced by the first girl he ever

asked out on a date. He tells me

how it snowed so hard that night, they’d made

a snowman instead of going to a movie

or a dance, so he’d fallen in love.

He says he’d stood still and let the snow

cover him while she danced around him.

Now his hands won’t move the way they used to,

and his voice speaks as though someone else were behind it,

like a puppeteer, someone not like him at all.

What am I to do? he asks. Sing the songs

you love most, I tell him, that might keep you intact.

And wait for me, I’m on my way. But when I get there,

he’s not in his house or garden, though his car

is sitting out front as usual, and his wife

is puttering in the rose bushes, singing

to the boom box set on the back porch, which churns out

golden oldies. Where has he gone?

I ask her. And she looks up with an odd expression

on her face and asks, Who do you mean, my love?



First Day of Class


I was thinking of starting a forest, he says,

when I ask what he plans to do with his life

after he graduates. If I did that,

he explains, I would have to learn self-reliance

and I’d understand the animals. I wonder how many

trees I’d have to grow to become

a forest, a real one. The other students listen silently

and some even nod, as if what he said

was something they’d considered too. But they’ve all told me

lawyer or physical therapist, nurse

or businessperson. There have been no dancers

or even English majors. But this young man is serious,

sitting there in tee-shirt and baseball cap, straight-backed

and speaking with a deferential nod, as though

I could help him--as I’ve been explaining I’m here

to do, their professor. We’ll form a small community

I’ve told them, or I hope we will, and we’ll discuss the world.

It seems to be raining this morning, though I’m not sure

since this classroom doesn’t have windows. It was raining

when I drove in at first light, splashing through the streets:

Some of the students wear slickers; others carry

brightly-colored umbrellas. And now another young man

raises his hand and says that, on second thought,

he wants to be a farm, an organic farm with many bees

and maybe even cows and pigs no one will ever eat

that live like pets. I love fresh milk, he says.

Then someone else tells us she’s always secretly

yearned to be a lake somewhere up north in the woods—

let’s say in Maine, since I love seasons

and I wonder how it feels to freeze tight,  not move

for months, how it feels to open up again

in the spring; and I’ve always wondered how fish would feel

swimming through my body, how that might  make me shiver

like love. And she laughs then. And thus the room grows wild.




The Ordinary Wonders


Taking out the compost after days of rain, I almost walk through the freshly-

woven spider web stretched between two palm trees. So I slowly lean the

compost down and kneel there watching, to see what that spider’s up to.

There’s a female cardinal in the still-dripping fire-cracker bush that stretches

out above my head, and I wonder if she might be the same little bird who

flapped against my study window a few hours ago, then tumble-wrestled with

another bird before flying off. I’m watching the spider web but nothing’s happening,

so I blow softly across it, meaning no harm, and out scampers the spider from

behind a shriveled leaf, into the center of his web. Is he looking up at me? I stop

blowing. Clouds are moving quickly across the sky. I can feel them as I stand here

watching my spider, who watches his human. And now a real breeze awakens in

the trees, quivering the web. Unlike my breath, the breeze doesn’t seem to alarm

the little spider in the least. He walks now, strolls we might even say, back to his

shriveled leaf and slips under. And as I lean down to pick up the bowl of scraps

I hear my neighbor singing next door, a full-throated jingle of lust and abandon.

So I hold myself still, just to listen.




The Open House


Then one afternoon, we opened all the windows

of that big suburban house to the autumn’s chill

and let it blow through, while we walked from room

to room just feeling that weather.


Outside the cool in the trees was delicious

and their branches held migrating birds that sang

as they rested, but we were entranced by the cool

that scoured our living room. And then 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 almost

forgotten by now. Standing there in the darkening


living 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 a little, though I couldn’t tell for sure

since the room was truly dark by then. And then he put it on again.




And We Were Nearly Children




Reading in my garden on a Sunday afternoon,

I realize with a shock      that blurs my eyes

when I look up at the flowering bushes and trees,


it’s been over thirty years since you died, daughter

I never really knew--as your mother did-- beyond

feeling you kick

and laughing, planning

our future together, as your mother giggled


to tell me you were dancing inside her, as she

sewed your baby clothes and imagined


a life you never lived, a life

we never lived, so long past now


I rarely think of you, stunned, as I’m stunned now,

to stare off into space                        

and remember those days


in Vermont, that beautiful summer of swimming

naked in the crisp        West River that ran

along the edge of our town, of walking

the ridge just across

the Connecticut River,

in New Hampshire, marveling at our luck      to have found

this place, so richly beautiful. We’d started


a gallery and tiny small press bookstore

and thought we might even make a go of it that way,


so your mother could give you her days, Audrey,

nursing you whenever you desired, carrying you

everywhere, even to the top of Rattlesnake

Ridge, we imagined, to look out over


the valley. And everything went well at first,

even the process of finding a midwife:



She was English, and though

she seemed a bit fierce

and sarcastic to us both, she’d been highly recommended,


so we overlooked our shared intuition

and enrolled in her home-birth-training class,

upstairs in her barn      those long summer evenings,

with a few other couples; we practiced breathing


and pushing, and we talked about the sadness of hospital

births, the industrial, commercialized loss

of the wondrous experience we were preparing for.


Outside, in the tall grass by the apple trees, there were

fireflies rising, and the stars were thick,

heavy and almost wet with their gleaming.


We were sure of our choice, though our families and some

of our friends were trying to get us to re-

consider home birth: things can happen they told us.


                                                            Of course we didn’t listen.


After all, hadn’t mothers birthed their children at home

for many thousands of years, and wasn’t

that peace and quiet, that quality of home

what a newborn needed, rather than              needles,

bright lights and prodding? We were sure we were doing


the right thing. Our midwife was well-trained and self-

assured, and we liked her assistant, whose name

I can’t remember, who had been our main coach

and who’d probably be there at the birth too, so were weren’t


worried. We thought about names. We were excited




and well-prepared. We’d asked a friend

to help with the birth, and we’d stocked up on towels

and ice, juices and tea. We


had Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians



all ready to play, as we waited for the big day

to come. It was fall. I’d started working


at a start-up magazine,  Family Journal, out

in the country, in a farmhouse. I worked side-by-side

with the owner-editor, surrounded by his wife


and children, who bustled in and out of the cramped room

we worked in while he gave me numbers to cold-call:


toy companies, food companies, well-known magazines


and somehow convince them to advertise with us,

a job I was totally unsuited for, made

impossible by the dead rat or squirrel under

the house, that stank so badly we could hardly


breathe.     And this editor corrected me constantly

as I made my lame pitch, he wanted me to be

more pushy. I hated everything about it,


except for my lunch break, when I wandered those dirt roads

through apple orchards, planning the life

we’d make here, dreaming of the house we’d find

on a beautiful piece of land by a stream,

someday soon.


                                                On the day you were born

and died, Audrey, your mother had gone


out to the country to visit a woman

whose collection of photographs she thought we might show

in our gallery.

                                    She told me she’d been walking along


the road there, amidst the swirl of autumn

leaves when her water broke. I remember nothing else

about that afternoon. I remember the evening




and the news that the midwife who’d coached us, the gentle

woman we’d liked, had been called unexpectedly,

to Maine so the English midwife


attended, with her own infant daughter in a basket

beside her. I remember her knitting while we drank tea,


and I remember her distraction, but we were focused

on your mother’s breathing, our breathing, on the immanent


birth of you, our first child, who’d been

so lively lately, kicking and dancing


inside. We lit candles and dimmed the room,

and the midwife checked your mother now


and then, without saying much of anything

at all—at least that’s how I remember it


now. At some point she grew alarmed




and we moved from the comfortable chair in the front room

to the mattress on the floor in our bedroom and she told your


mother to push, which she’d been doing,

and she told your mom to push harder, she was leaning


down over your mother growing more

and more alarmed—and the music played on,


and the candles flickered and she started raising

her voice at your mother and ordering me


to do this and that—and I obeyed like some sort of

stunned automaton, not understanding


exactly what was going on. Your mother was panting

and pushing and I was pushing on your mother


from behind, pushing hard enough to hurt her,

everyone was bent down and hurting your mother


and hurting your mother who was panting, not crying

but hurt and when the midwife cut




your mother, desperate to get you out, Audrey,

she cut her with a serrated knife, she cut deep


into your mom who was bleeding, even dying—

I’m not exaggerating—and when you slid our of her—


better say when you were yanked out, you were

limp but alive and someone had called


the police who were there then, lumbering presences

in the dim light, with hats and flashlights,


and they took you, our daughter, to the hospital, less

than a mile away, and I stayed with your mom


while the midwife stitched her, brutally and without

anesthetic and your mom cried out, not


for herself. She loved you as a darling daughter,

Audrey, let me tell you now


from the distance of all these years, as fiercely

as any mother could, she wanted only


the best for you. I was there too

and I loved you but not the way your mother did. I loved


your mother and I loved the way she loved you,

and so I loved you, as a father does. And I


missed you; I already missed the life

we never had. And when the hospital




called to tell us you were alive,

probably brain damaged from oxygen deprivation,


that you’d never live a full life, probably survive

only a few days, we told them to let you



                                                            and then we went to the hospital





to see you, our dear daughter Audrey, in the autumn

dawn-light and chill, we were shown to a small

sterilized, brightly-lit room where you lay

on a counter, on your back, a perfectly beautiful

girl, our daughter, with blond hair and perfect

hands and feet, perfect fingernails. They were kind to us

there--and they were furious too,


at the loss, our loss, but also at the simple

awesome negligence. But that’s another story




and what I want to say now, Audrey, is that after

you were cremated we carried your ashes

to a bend in the river we’d swum in that summer


when you were so large in your mom, when she was

so proud of you in there she proudly strutted

and held her belly out for all the world to see


and her bright blue eyes twinkled happily because of you;

Audrey, we scattered your ashes beside

that river. And every time we drove


or walked by, we thought of you there, and when

it was cold out your mom would worry you’d  be cold

there by the river, and she’d cry that there was


nothing she could do to warm you , and she was

still badly wounded where the midwife had cut her.

For months she thought about harming herself—


jumping off a bridge, leaping out beyond the pain--


as though that would have helped anything at all,

and we grieved together, and she suffered from her wound




which is with her even now, despite the beautiful

children we’ve raised together. That winter



your mom took a job as a crossing guard, walking

children back and forth across the busy street

in the morning, at noon, and in the afternoon,


while I drove a bread truck through the hills of Vermont

and western Massachusetts, marveling at the beauty

of that place, and we went cross-country skiing

almost every day in the hills around our town,


and your mom wrote reviews of local art shows

and she put on exhibitions at our gallery and we made

good friends as I looked for jobs other places,

teaching jobs or anything that would take us away


from the darkness of loss that was defining us, no matter

what we did or how we laughed sometimes, a loss

that lived in the trees and snowfall and windowpanes,

in the buildings of that town, in the beautiful rivers

and waterfalls there. There was nothing we could do


but move, and so we gave up everything

and started the life we’ve been living     thirty years


in tropical flatlands, salt marsh and everglade,

and we’ve made a family without you, dear daughter,


who’ve always been with us, I promise you, somewhere


deep in the blood, in the marrow, in the breath

we share each night, your mother and I,


in sleep, no matter what we’re dreaming.




And I think of a beautiful woman who lives

in the woods, a silent woman who lives


in the way the leaf of a birch tree might flutter

in the wind no one feels, or the way any stream


is full of dancers, full of living creatures

no one even sees except her, sweet woman




who moves by breathing, and never blows away,

though she seems like the wind, this woman who can’t


be seen, although she is the gleaming

we love so, in water or mica, or in


the pale underbellies of fluttering leaves--




and when the first snow falls, she is that silence

that will melt into the ground before anything lands


or walks there, that silence that seeps down into

the earth and makes those bone-chilling rivers


we drink from sometimes when we’re so thirsty


our words have dried up inside us, the words

that might save something real and true


if we could only speak them, and so we lean down


and drink from that freezing river, and dunk

our heads down under, and pull them out again


to sing to the world and each other. And then,




sitting in this garden, in this other country

we moved to so many years ago,



I look up at the evening settling around us,

damp and still, though the sky is still light.



Crows and ibis are flying east, just above our live oak trees,



toward their rookery islands in the bay.

Colleen’s in the kitchen moving pots and pans around





as she thinks about dinner; the radio is chattering

contentedly. Soon I’ll get up



and go inside to help her, but for now I’ll just sit here

quietly, watching the birds, listening



carefully for the woosh of their beating wings,

softer then my own breath, as they fly toward the islands



just offshore

where they’ll sing until it’s dark.


----------  ------------   --------------   ------------   -------------    --------------


From The Measured Breathing  (2011)
Birds from All the Days You’ve Lived


The wind drew its long hair across the bedroom floor,

but the bedroom was outside now, as the houses were scattered

and the floors of the houses were splintered, and the windows

were out there in the field, where windows are nothing

but the wind, whose long hair had been dyed gray

by the rivers it had moved through. And so we could no longer

read in the dim light with a cup of tea.


And so we could no longer listen to music

in the morning at the dining room table, ignoring

the newspaper’s nothingness and sales-events, and we could

no longer talk to the gesture, we could only

imitate the faces. The wind’s hair was freshly washed

but it wasn’t yet braided.

                                                I was walking up the mountain

behind you who were talking about the stones you’d visited

up here and over there, back behind that clump of trees—

stones that held the birds that must have been flying

before there was anything like us, flying overhead

before the rules were made, singing and flying,

birds that were caught now. It was a field of boulders.


So we sat there through the afternoon, we dozed there, and when we woke—


the birds were everywhere; they had long strands of hair

in their beaks, there were so many birds I couldn’t move

without touching feathers, and when I moved

the birds flew up, casting darkness, and then

they settled down again. You were crying, pulling out your hair

and holding out your hand so the birds could take the strands

and fly off. They are not birds with names, you said,

when I started to thumb through our guide book; they are birds

from all the days you’ve lived, birds from so far back

inside you the days themselves have vanished. They still live there,

way back inside you, and when we clap our hands

they’ll fly back inside, though it will look like they’re flying up

into the sky. You clapped then and watched,

sitting on those warm rocks, that held themselves more still

when we were sitting on them than they did as we walked away

up the mountain, where we camped beside a waterfall

that rushed past so loudly

we had to gesture to be heard.


The Lesson


We all know stories of people who’ve turned into things

like trees, who woke up as an insect or a bear,

a river or a whole field of flowers.

And of course we’ve heard stories of people turned to ashes

and snow—snow falling, snow covering the ground

in deep drifts we could tunnel through, almost disappearing there.


One winter the snow was so deep in our town

we had to climb out our windows and up

to the surface, a vast expanse with just

the top branches of a few tall trees sticking through.


If we fell through the crust, we might tumble through the white

too deep to climb back out. There were birds in mid-flight there

and dogs standing still, as though the snow had caught them

in a flash. But when the snow melted, years later,


everything returned to normal, though the rivers

were swollen at first with dogs and debris.

There were ponds in the woods for a few weeks; they became

fields of flowers when they vanished, full of buzzing bees

which taught us something else, something harder


The Measured Breathing


And so I understand, at least for a moment,

how something and nothing can sometimes be reversed,

as I understand nothing: The black in a crow’s wing

works like my own deepest sleep when I wake

beyond mere self, that black like the waves

lifting their shoulders in a sudden swell of memory

or just a sudden swell. If everything we needed

were real, those delicate yellow-bellied birds

might fly through this thicket without brushing anything

and I might come home to a house full of absence

and meet all the people I’ve loved, sitting there

in the bodies they had then, but stuffed now with straw,

propped up and grinning. As my body too

is stuffed with dry grass, which pokes through my clothes.

I was hungry and you fed me—just enough to survive

until I was only what I am now, disappeared

into the music behind all this sound,

as the trees are connected to the trees of their past

through roots and branches and leaves—without thinking

anything we’d ever recognize as thinking,

anything we’d recognize: a place beyond this air.

Another Kind of Secret


He had walked the empty beach for miles,

gathering driftwood branches, interesting

shapes and contortions.

But now he’d grown tired, so he put the bundle down


and stepped in for a swim. And though he waded far out,

the water didn’t deepen beyond his waist,

so he kept walking, until he’d stepped up

onto a sandbar, almost out of sight,


beyond which the water dropped off, dropped deep.

He could see large fish swimming there, creatures

with dog-and-bird faces, with ravenous eyes,

pink-fleshed and grunting, too large to swim


into the shallows he’d waded through.

The winds had picked up, and he wondered if maybe

he should swim out there, leap out, just to see what

might happen, before the darkness fell


and the houses in the dunes started filling up with fireflies,

as though they were dreaming, which they did every night now,

though few people noticed. Instead he turned back

and waded in, grown chilly, and walked home empty-handed,


so he could tell stories about

the driftwood he’d gathered, and the fish he’d almost swum with.

And what about the fireflies? No one would believe him.

He was almost naked. That beach glowed like the moon.

Some Days Just Feel Like

the book I continue intending to read
or the rhythm I blink with my eyes, or the moons
in my fingernails as I scratch your back
and look out the window beyond you, into

a wilderness of bushes we planted just a year ago,
now filled with purple berries and lizards
the length of my finger, the guide book full
of useful lies, like the color of the lake 

we intend somebody to live beside
or the river that flows beneath our house,
full of transparent fish we eat
sometimes when we curl around each other

too tightly to sleep, or wake in an unfamiliar
outskirt of our lives, where the accents are leafy
and windblown and full of useless gestures
like free improvisations without

melody, stories that flesh no plot,
or books we could intend to read
for years--until our lives are separate
from our bodies, and we are everywhere.



She talked about the faces we've memorized so well
we no longer see them.  She looked at me, squinting,
and wondered which self might be irrelevant
in this colorized landscape, where birds fly in no clear
pattern, like feelings. And doesn't the sky pale
each time we look up, and every time we mention blue?
So I imagine caves, she said, and so I breathe
cool air as we walk down into dripping earth,
wondering how deep we must go before there's only dark,
before we've vanished. Could we understand our bodies
well enough to see, could we wake the senses
we've never even thought about, to light our way down
where creatures have no use for eyes,
down where creatures are more pale than air,
down where we might even make our own light
and see.  So why not practice breathing
with our bodies, until we can swim as far down
as we might desire, hollow out our thoughts
until we are light enough to fly, unfold
our wings like black umbrellas, and flap
unself-consciously, thinking sky or wind,
the self that is all self, make an adequate
language from the center of everything, and sing?



He said he could hear what people were saying
in cars on the highway
even when they were blasting their radios.

He told me he could recognize my heart beat
as soon as I walked into his office, even
while I was sitting in the waiting room and he was
treating a patient much sicker than me.

He said he could hear the unexplored terrain inside:
huge fields no human had visited, with birds
rising just above the tall grass,

gliding there, landing, singing in patterns
that always sounded new, and in harmony. He scowled
as he stared off into space, then told me the woods
on the other side of that field were full
of owls the size of our children when they’re learning
to talk, which is huge for a raptor. Then he smiled
and opened his arms for a hug, so he could 
feel those secrets I still couldn’t tell
and sense which flowers would heal me.



 The Father

Yesterday, my daughter came home 
carrying a wing she had fashioned in art class,
as tall as I am--which is not very tall
for a person but huge for a wing--built
of wire and wax paper that looked like skin,
and hair she'd cut from her classmates' heads
and glued down. No feathers. That was one of the rules,
she told me, we have to make wings without feathers,
that strap onto our arms. Then we're supposed to fly,
or pretend to
, while our friends imagine birds
and draw us way up there. And then we'll draw them  too.
When I tapped the wing lightly it sounded like a drum.
It's beautiful, I told her, and then I went inside
while she strapped the wing on and started running around
the yard, lopsided for a bird: one wing
only makes a person fall over.
So I helped her build a second wing, but it didn't match,
which was all right by me, since I didn't really want her
flying anyway, at least not without
protection: a parachute, or a net to break her fall.
I helped her fail, though both her wings are beautiful.
Maybe they are beautiful because they don't quite match,
I suggested over dinner, unconvinced myself.
She scowled. And then she smiled. Later we went out-­-
after the dew had fallen--and tried
to lift spider webs from the trees without
spoiling their symmetry. These will staunch a wound
better than a band-aid, or a cotton ball,
she said
as dusk fell around us, like fragrance or a breeze.
I wanted to ask her what wound do you mean,
as though I might staunch it myself, but she was
holding a web suspended in her hands,
like air, or like nothing, and passing it to me.