the museum of americana

a literary review

Mockingbirds — Nonfiction by Mike Smith

 
In the four and a half years since my wife’s death, I have been shadowed by mockingbirds. They are simply everywhere I turn. When I moved from Washington, D.C. to North Carolina, they followed me. Two and a half years later, when I remarried and moved from Raleigh to Mississippi, their visits only increased. If I go more than a couple of days without noticing one, I start to wonder where my life is going wrong.

One morning, I walked out my front door to roll the trash to the curb. It’s one of the chores I’ve learned I must do at exactly the same time in my ritual of readying myself for the day, or I’ll forget it altogether. During the school year this is easy, but in the summers, I struggle to maintain my schedule. And there it was, directly in my path, a fledgling mockingbird stretching its wings in the sun while the mother bird remained frozen on the telephone wire above the street. As I edged closer, the fledgling looked up at me with what seemed a mixture of wonder and curiosity. It was absolutely unafraid. Tentatively, it hopped to the side, as if it had to invent its next move, as if it had to invent a reason for moving. I matched it step-for-hop all the way to the grass of the side yard, a playful dance, until its mother had had enough and swooped down so low I could feel the wind from her wings above my head. She knew exactly what to do.

Before my first wife’s illness, the product of this simple moment might have been a poem, but I had been thinking a lot about the shapes into which we put our thoughts. Because so much that I had taken for granted had collapsed with her death, I found myself enjoying uncertainty more and more, and that had led me away from the poetic line  as an instrument of composition. It had led me towards forms of response plastic enough to embody and reflect the recent turbulence of my life.  I had been paying more and more attention to the examples of naked need that surrounded me, examples that seemed more present the more time I took to notice them. Of course, it was equally likely that I had just grown tired of getting in my own way.

From the edge of the carport, I could still see the fledgling in the grass, sitting in that fat way of young birds. I felt like going to my desk and writing it all down, then thought better and went to fetch my five year-old, Langston, who had been working hard on a drawing at the kitchen table. Langston was an infant when his mother died and I had been struggling with how to instill in him some sense of the mother he would not remember. I wanted him to be able to hold in his head the scene I had just witnessed.

“I want to show you something,” I said.

“Not right now. I’m drawing.”

“What are you drawing?” I asked.

“A gem maker,” he said, never looking up. “It’s round in the middle and it has turning wires on the ends. Can we go to the store and get the stuff to make it?”

The drawing on the table showed a cylinder, bulging at the center like our planet, with winch-like handles, the kind with which you might make a Jack-in-the-Box pop out. “Like a rock tumbler,” I said.

“No. It’s got crystals inside that make the gems.”

“I don’t think the hardware store sells crystals.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said (his favorite expression). “We’ll just get the wood and metal for the outside.” The implication was, obviously, one he felt he did not need to make explicit. Or maybe articulating it would ruin the magic. The inside would just have to take care of itself.

 

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msmithMike Smith has published three collections of poetry, including Multiverse, a collection of two anagrammatic cycles. Recent poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming  in The Chattahoochee Review, The Greensboro Review, Image, Notre Dame Magazine, and The Raleigh Review. In addition, his translation of the first part of Goethe’s Faust was published by Shearsman Books in 2012.

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