“The Birch”

“The Birch,” from Before There Was Before, was first published in The Hudson Review. I remembered that the “little brown dog” was on the back of the slipcase, and that the book was Thomas Mann’s Joseph in Egypt. The dog was actually the logo for Alfred A. Knopf. This was the book! Funny how some memories bob back up while others are unrecoverable.

The Birch

I scramble up the slippery trunk. I’m five,

in my own backyard. I fling my one leg,

then the other, hoist myself into the tree.

Then I crack open the shells

of my sunflower seeds, wiggle out

the kernels with the tip of my tongue,

spit the empty shells down to the grass.

I peel bark the way I want to,

the way I peel my scabs to see

the pink skin, the new part underneath,

just born. I watch

clouds scrub the sky. I stay up here

in my brave room until all the fathers

have walked home from the bus stop after work,

carrying the newspapers under their arms,

the streetlights just coming on.

My father is not coming home. He’s left

my mother and me and all

his shirts and his camel’s hair coat

in the hall closet. All his books

on the shelves, even my favorite

with the little brown dog I love

on the cover, his front and back legs

outstretched, running hard.

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