Michael Hettich, "Awake Before Dawn"
Since I have a demanding, full-time teaching job, my writing practice, over the past ten
years or so, has been to get up early every day and write for at least an hour—more if my
schedule allows—before going off to work. This early-morning writing has dictated the
formal and thematic concerns of my two most recent full-length books, Like Happiness
and The Animals Beyond Us. Though the two books are very different in conception and
approach, they were both sowed and watered in the late-dark of early morning, when the
creatures we have no names for are still creeping and singing through the trees. And this
small essay too is being written in such darkness.
The title of my 2010 book of poems, Like Happiness, captures the tenor and substance
of the collection more accurately than have the titles of any of my other books of poetry.
These poems, I hope, enact moments of vivid awareness and feeling that in their very
manifestation feel, while they last, “like” the state of heart and mind we call happiness.
Perhaps such moments of deep feeling—good, bad, confused, ecstatic—are in fact all
we can ever know of happiness: flashes of momentary immortality that fall away in
a breath or two--the way the best poems themselves can sometimes rise up in flashes
and then fall away. Thus, those moments that feel “like” happiness may be all we can
know of that condition, that state of being we yearn all our lives to achieve. And the
arc of development the book itself enacts takes the reader from the fragile innocence of
a child—which sometimes feels more nearly like confusion—to the very different and
far more elusive “innocence” of the adult moving through the worlds of parenthood,
obligation, married love and grief. Here, those moments that feel “like” happiness often
result from—and give rise to—deep and painful confusion. Sometimes, these poems
seem to argue, adult happiness itself is at best the condition approaching what Robert
Frost called “a momentary stay against confusion”—his definition, in fact, of poetry.
Like Happiness confronts the joys and difficulties of family life, the dislocations and
contentments of middle age, and the vivid beauty—true happiness—of the natural world at a
time of huge environmental, psychological and spiritual stress. The poems here grew out
of a time when my children were moving off to college, moving away from home; thus
there is a certain sense of dislocation and wistful familial sadness in some of the pieces,
even a kind of nostalgia. The book’s three sections represent a movement from childhood
innocence through the confusions of experience and into an attitude toward the self and
larger world I’m not sure I have a name for. The book represents the end of one period in
my life and in my writing, and the beginning of another.
I wrote most of Like Happiness between 2005-2007, though I tinkered with it, adding
new poems and pulling others out, until just a few weeks before the book went to press.
Rick Campbell, the Senior Editor at Anhinga Press, had accepted the manuscript for
publication as early as 2008, and had told me then that it would be years before it was
actually published, so I had the odd and new (for me) experience of knowing that all
the books I’d written had found their homes. This was a relief, and even a mild form of
liberation—liberation, that is, from my then-habitual approach to writing and revising
poems. Like most poets, I’m usually sending a manuscript (or manuscripts) out to
publishers, fretting quietly about when that particular manuscript will meet the world as a
book. This can be a bit distracting, and it can also impede the forward motion of the poet,
as one is always arranging and rearranging an already-finished manuscript, adding and
subtracting poems from the mix instead of moving forward with new work. With Like
Happiness accounted for, I allowed myself to write more quickly and playfully than I had
done in years, and I wrote my next book, The Animals Beyond Us, which has just been
published by New Rivers Press, in only a few months.
Three poems from Like Happiness
In that 2nd grade classroom, Mrs. Circle said
each of us carries an ocean inside
bigger than we are, like happiness, and full of
fish that live nowhere else in the world
and tides that are pulled by our heartbeats, and low tide
sand bars to wade far out in the bright sun.
She taught us we can learn to swim there by jumping
out into the water where the water is still
and shallow, holding our breath and moving
our arms and legs gently, gently--try
for yourself she suggested, and we all closed our eyes
sitting there at our desks, while the snow fell outside
and the radiator whispered. I could hear the clock tick
as we all held our breath and swam without really moving
our bodies, like jellyfish, across the beds
of coral that were filled with many-colored fish
whose names didn’t matter, Mrs. Circle said,
as long as you let them come to you--
they are like angels--and nibble the tiny
air bubbles that cling to the hairs along your legs and arms.
Feel how they tickle she said, take a deep breath,
dive down underwater as far as you can.
Do you see your shadow down there on the sand,
following your body? That’s another form of you,
a kind of memory, swimming down below
your only solid body. Don’t forget it. Then she clapped her hands
and we all looked up, happy to be sitting there
with our young teacher in that drafty classroom
in the age of extinction and nuclear bombs
we hadn’t been taught about yet.
The water from the salt marsh our dream house was built on
rose through the ground floor one full-moon high tide
and ruined everything, while we children were out roaming
the marshes or the schoolyard, where a girl I had a crush on
had let some boys touch her. That was the year
we’d sneak into the school after everyone else
had gone home, when shadows made even the desks
hold themselves with dignity, as though they were alive.
Once an old teacher whose name we didn’t know
was sleeping at her desk, head resting on her papers.
Her door stood open, so my friend stepped in.
I stayed out in the hall and watched as he started
to stroke her gray hair with the tips of his fingers,
as though he were trying to understand something
or comfort her--until she sat up, startled
and blinking, and he whispered it was growing dark outside,
and he told her gently it was time to go home.
She stared at us blankly, then put her head back down.
We watched her sleep until the room went dark,
then walked out into the chilly winter dusk
without speaking, and home to our families.
Awake Before Dawn
I opened my grief, the secret life explains,
as though it were a trunk of old clothes
I found in someone’s attic, fashions my parents’
parents outgrew. I held each piece up
to see if it had been chewed or mildewed or frayed
and I tried to smell the sweat that might linger.
Then I dressed in those clothes--both men’s and women’s--
and walked around pretending to remember other lives
until who I had been had forgotten me.
Another kind of man could turn into a tree
and still be a man, and take pleasure in the wind,
in the water that flows up into his body
and out through his leaves like happiness, refreshing
that wind with its green life, that wind that travels everywhere,
poking its nose into root-crotch and grotto,
calling who’s there, who’s there into the emptiness
and moving off quickly, before anything replies.
Michael Hettich earned his Ph.D. in English and American literature from the University of Miami. He is the author of a dozen books and chapbooks of poetry, most recently Like Happiness (2010), The Animals Beyond Us (2011) and the just-published chapbook The Measured Breathing, which won the 2011 Swan Scythe Chapbook Contest. He lives with his family in Miami and teaches at Miami Dade College.