The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2016

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MAR 2016 Issue



These poems were written in response to a documentary photo project by Rachel Sussman called The Oldest Living Things in The World. Since 2004, Sussman has traversed the globe, photographing continuously living organisms more than 2,000 years old.




Arms splayed wide as if to grasp

each other’s hands, if never quite

to touch, a large extended family

of gingerbread men lies face down

in shallow water, apparently drowned.

The sky is clear and oh so blue,

a gorgeous day in Western Australia,

not atypical either. I remember

wandering the streets of Sydney

(in the east), everything out of whack,

time most of all. My internal clock

read eight p.m. yet the sunlight shone

at noon the following day. Nevertheless

the gingerbread men of western OZ

are very much alive. Two thousand-plus

years old, these layered biochemical

accretionary structures form

in shallow water as biofilms trap,

bind, and cement sedimentary grains

of microorganisms. The name combines

stroma and lithos, “mattress” and “stone.”

I picture the man who named them

standing, Whitmanic and alone

above this bay of sleep, wondering

to himself or possibly aloud

if the line between life and death

isn’t so very clear, if it even exists,

thinking too it might be time

to catch a nap before setting himself

to the tasks he’s planned for the afternoon.












These densely packed buds

on long, thin stems cling

to each other with such ferocity

that what we see resembles not

so much a flower as The Blob,

that mysterious organism

deposited by meteor to earth,

which feeds and grows voraciously

on human flesh, its only weakness

the cold, a fact discovered

by a young Steve McQueen,

who escapes the fate of so many

in Anytown, USA

when he hides from the monster

in a walk-in restaurant cooler,

but the Llareta plant of Chile,

(or the Atacama Desert, to be

exact, a place compared often

to Mars or the moon) despite

its otherworldly appearance,

bears humankind no malice,

its bulbous muscularity,

though it may appear alien

to the outsider, is at home

here in the high mountain sand,

providing fuel to the fires

of rangers and nomads

it warms them from the chill

nighttime winds that blow

out of who-knows-where,

some even use them as chairs

or platforms to stand upon

perhaps to get a better view,

perhaps to test their strength,

amazed that a million flowers

can over time grow so close

they shed their tender selves

to form a collective bond

that reverses the passage of time

making them stronger

as everything around them

starts to rot they grow firm

in their resolve to outlast

every living thing in sight.












As we pick over the bones

of long dead whales, ocean’s

dried detritus, dense white clouds

descend upon the mountain

like a judgment, smothering

its peak, its wide brown flanks,

leaving visible only a thin belt

of soft green moss tensed

around its waist. Is it the subtle

daily encroachments of the sea

that frighten them? Fear of

invisibility? Of being

swallowed and blinded by

the cloud? Surely it isn’t

leviathan, whose bleached

and broken bones, having

rendered up their colors as

supplication and ornament,

are little more than provender.

It must be something else,

something not in the frame

yet framing it, the threat

of an ending, the possibility

of which has just begun

to be revealed, but hasn’t yet

a proper name.












Some poems grow slowly,

one line at a time,

one word at a time,

one silence. Certain climes

or altitudes lack

the readers necessary

for steady growth,

causing poems to conserve

energy by shutting down.

Indeed, some poems grow

at a remarkably slow rate,

one letter per century,

say, and can survive

with few if any readers

for up to 5,000 years.

One cannot surmise

their age by size alone.

Many express themselves

in short lines or tiny fonts

whose efficient use

of space makes growth

nearly imperceptible.

Evidence of longevity

is often buried deep inside,

rendering most scientific

dating methods moot. Yet,

despite the mystery

of their provenance,

despite the fact that by all

outward signs these poems

are but fossilized remains,

it is not unheard of,

in the rarefied zones

these organisms inhabit,

to discover a family of rhymes

not merely surviving

but thriving. One has to marvel

at their ability to adapt

to a habitat in which so few

readers even know they exist,

fewer still even care.












Thick, black horizontal scars

and prominent black knots

mark the smooth, white skin

of the populus tremuloides.

Not a tree but a clone, it spreads,

just as the name of this grove,

the literal translation of which

“I spread,” suggests a unitary mind

diffusing rhizomatically (“a rhizome

has no beginning or end”). Pushing

itself sideways and down, it holds

its place without ever standing still,

sends scouts outward in the form

of green shoots that rise quickly.

The fibers shred and expand, gaining

strength in proportion to the damage

(“the fabric of the rhizome

is the conjunction, and....and....and....”).

These scars are the residue of ascent,

I speculate (for every tree needs a myth!).

Having multiplied into an army of giants,

it sends feelers in all directions,

antennae taking measure of the light,

the vibrations of the breeze.

Sound waves crossing the universe

cause the leaves to quake, quietly

at first, then louder, in unison,

a million chattering castanets

turn yellow from green

before falling to the ground,

one, two, three thousand at once,

then nothing, the passage of time,

eighty-thousand-maybe-a-million years

 (“variation, expansion, conquest,

capture, offshoots.”).












It appears from this angle

and distance little more

than a ragged stick, rising

weakly, staggering over

a moonscape of stone,

at a glance no different

from the broken pines

beside our house

which lost their tops

in superstorms and such.

The caption reads:

Spruce Gran Picea #0909-11A07

(9,550 years old; Sweden).

Thus, this teetering trunk

(a stunted shrub

for most of its life, they say

it came to resemble a tree

only with the advent

of Global Warming)

had stood its ground, silent

and mostly ignored

as empire after empire

burst into flames, until,

that is, a geologist,

serendipitously named Leif,

used carbon dating

to discover its age

before he christened it

with the appellation

of his late beloved dog.







Michael Kelleher

Michael Kelleher's most recent book of poems is Visible Instruments (Chax, 2017). He is the director of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes at Yale.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2016

All Issues