Easter morning. Another perfect day to sit outside and read, pausing to watch the sun pour through red maple blossoms and forsythia. This might be why I prefer poetry to fiction: it does not take you completely out of the world. But Judson Mitcham comes from rural Georgia, from cotton fields and church suppers and sandlot baseball, and I am made to reconsider what I think an April day might mean. I’m seeing double, which is always a good thing.
Where an earlier book of his might’ve looked Somewhere in Ecclesiastes, a poem in this one sports an epigraph from Ecclesiasticus, and soon I am finding fresh apocrypha everywhere. Mass mailings sent to a man eight years dead bristle with significance. Lines of pure poetry are fathered upon a couple at an airport whispering in an unknown language. By page 29, I too am “getting lost on purpose.” A Klan gathering turns out to be little more than a worship service, and rock guitar riffs a legacy “from unknown men with second-hand guitars.” For some reason, the truth of these simple assertions gives me chills. An old woman writes a love letter to a man named Clarence, who used to make up stories about the drivers of cars going past in the darkness, and I can sense that attraction, too. Who needs the truth when an artful invention will do?
The church bells are ringing in town, but I can’t make out the melody, only the notes. (It sounds odd to put it that way, doesn’t it?) I read, “God’s editors erased what they thought not right,” about the pious canon-creators and their deafness to any laughter on the part of Jesus. A few pages later, there’s a poem in four parts called “Laughter,” and oy, it is as close to difficult parable as anything in the book. Mitcham knows how the smell of insecticide might provoke longing, how a fart at the right moment can be redemptive, and how the sound of one’s own laughter can prompt a sudden recognition of home, even when
The developers had cut
the old oaks, leveled off the hills, even made
the road go straight where it shouldn’t have, so
the homeplace seemed like a lie he had told
all his life, to himself.
I read these apocrypha just as I read the Bible: with great enjoyment tinged with a little bit of wistfulness for a storytelling tradition I could never quite feel at home in. But homelessness is the natural state of most poets, and Mitcham (or at least his protagonist) is no exception. He flees from a proselytizing woman on an airplane only to encounter in the concourse full of strangers his own “hope of someone waiting there/ who loved me.” A poem called “Home” is set in a home for the elderly, where “a history of groans began to grow/ till the sing-song noise made sense.”
A Cooper’s hawk begins to chitter up in the woods. I think of the hermit thrush I watched sing from a branch beside the porch two hours before, the quiet, ethereal song seeming to come from a great distance. “We are,” says Mitcham, “like/ the hymns once played on the out-of-tune piano … versions no one else/ will ever reproduce.”
(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)