Look in the mirror of the burned down house, the faces of God we see. See the man who cuts the grass, who sweeps the street, who picks up the brush to name what was once lost or tossed to the curb or left in a vacant lot. Here where a house once stood. Here where a child once played in and ate the dirt. A man pushes a shopping cart down the street even though its front wheel no longer spins. A mother cracks an egg. The skillet blackened by bacon grease. To be fat is to be holding, to be held. Fire eats the wood and the wood does not say a word. A Bible with pages missing, pages ripped out, words we all know, or don't. A sky is a bird and the roof of this cathedral. A church where cars are made. Rust is what, in the end, our ashes have become. Where the dead now live there is grass seed at our feet. The laces of our sneakers. The white sheets of a single mattress. They take. When I get out and walk, when I say my name. These are the stories we tell. These are the songs that don't get sung. The records I used to play spin on the rooftops. A chair might be a chimney. A stone that floats is a poem that cannot be spoken. Give me an imperfect circle, a shape that I can become. If the taxi does not stop then walk. When the stars burn out who will fix them? The penny on the sidewalk is showing heads. Leave it there for the next guy who comes along who will find it shining in the dark. When I shake your hand I always look for dirt beneath the nails. Your knuckles are rivers. Don't eat the fish but still we fish for what can't be seen. Where do the birds go when they fly away? The watch says wake up, the house keep out. Under the porch a baby doll without a child to coo it to sleep. Her hand is raised. I touch it once before turning. Before I make my leave. For it might not be here when we get back.
When we get back the house is gone. Our words become the house we live in. And if there are no words, what then? What is the name, the sound, of sorrow, of solace, or sacrifice? There is a hole in the ground. There is no door for you to knock on. No windows to look in through. On the other side of this city, in Delray, when a house was turned to splintered wood, a slag heap of words never said, the old man who was my grandfather knelt in the dirt and the broken glass and bricks and made a garden. Hair white and haloed like a dandelion gone to seed. If there were weeds he would pull them. When the tomatoes fell red and ripe from the vine we would eat. For the child puts the word in his mouth. When I said just now word what I meant was world, though if there’s one thing I’ve learned is to always trust our mis-sayings, our typos, our mistakes.
If there’s anything to learn then memorize this: that behind every story is a scar. A boy writes, My face is a book of invisible scars. Each scar tells a story. Each story begins, Back when I was small. But what about the house where poetry lives? With a chair nailed to the roof. In the attic where the walls breathe and sweat. In the back yard with a tire swinging from a rope. And the tree that offers no leaves. And the tree that is ours to climb. In a nest at the top two eggs waiting to hatch. But what if they are stones? What if when they break open there is no song? The sky is blue. There are days when to look is an act of witness. Perhaps we are here if only to say, or to not say, to say how can we, or how can we not. When my daughter was small she gave me the words of a poem. My mouth/is wet/like rain. A poem, I know, is never finished, only abandoned. Detroit is a poem written in couplets, a poem that resists rhyme, a poem that is at times too easy to abandon, a poem that is rooted in the nouns—house, sky, fire, river, mud, automobile, brick. And for each of these words there is only one verb: to sing. Yes, to sing, sing—this is why we are here—even if no one hears it.
“In the House Where Poetry Lives” was first published in A Detroit Anthology, edited by Anna Clark (Belt Publishing, 2014). http://beltmag.com/detroit-anthology/