“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.
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.
Thanks to my friend John Harrison for the video. This poem is called “The Book of Apology.” I composed most of it at Marie Howe’s workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Marie’s assignment was to write an “embodied poem” for the next day, that is, a poem composed in the mouth and not written down, to be recited the next day in class. Everyone “wrote” powerful and moving poems that day.