M. J. Rychlewski


That tree across the field is the frontier
where Jews are saved, crossing into
Oregon Territory. I say that tree
across the field is moving as I speak.

Although this morning I discussed a lost
bathing cap with the director of the park,
I am nevertheless willing to examine
the place where all my other lives live.

There is the tree by the fountain in the park
in Atlanta, a city I have never been to.
Or I am walking toward the tree of
1964, my transistor radio against my ear.

There has been much tribal hemorrhaging
in this area. They say that tree across the field
was the sight of many executions. Now
these two nations are nations in name only.

It appears as if this wild weather has torn
that tree from its roots. I cannot see it,
though I will pick up my daughter at 4:30
and hope they resolve her missing bathing cap.

Regard your photo of that tree across the field.
Now that you know it is gone forever, is not
its small embrace of sky imbued with sadness?
What strange fate. Unable to describe who we are.



It’s like those times we half turn our
head toward the person who is calling
us, our jaw still slack with the drug that
consumes us: some line about the dark

lipstick of the past or that before
the advent of the corridor you had to
walk through one room after another,
disturbing the man with the fat lips who

submerges himself in the green oval cut
sapphire on her neck where I press my face
to inhale her there; I am shameless, throwing
away all respect, whiling away endless hours

in her company and wandering bleary-eyed
into the park where early sunlight graces
the useless statues. It’s like those times
we fail to notice the hurt in our child’s face

or the resignation in our partner’s eyes
because we are too obsessed with pigs gliding
through human hearts or hair that smells of
cherry smoke in that clever tale that’s almost

there. They know we will never be there,
that our jarred eyeballs will always rattle
back to the ancient sewing machines and Life
magazines piled up in the bathtub of our art.

Then one day when the first snowflakes
circle down as indecisively as summer flies,
we imagine the sounds our loved ones
deep inside the house and we go there

and gather them to us, room after room,
and let all this go on its merry way:
a blazing fire down a forgotten path,
flaming down to grateful ash.



In the hills of Perigord we stop along the road
to show our three-year old a horse. “Look!”
we say. “Through the fence! See the horse!”
She regards it a moment. “Cow,” she replies
and returns to her Little Red Riding Hood doll.

Is it the form or the color that confuses her?
Or simply the context? We pull back
into the gray morning and wind toward
Lascaux, which we don’t feel much like seeing
since the caves open to the tourists are not

the real ones. We argue this one night with Gilles
and Sylviane, who believe you can be moved by
beautiful copies. “The intent is irrelevant then,”
I counter. “Only the effect matters.” Am I
a snob? Too western? There’s a Shinto temple

that’s destroyed and rebuilt every twenty years,
yet the Japanese think it a thousand years old.
Our bodies produce all new cells every seven,
yet isn’t that ourselves we see in the mirror at night?
“Mere-Grand,” Claire declares, flipping the doll

upside down and turning the skirt inside out
to reveal the old woman in blue in whose house
the tale must always end. It begins to drizzle.
“Forget Lascaux. Let’s just buy a guide book.”
At the restaurant we can’t decide if we want

cassoulet au confit de canard or truite almandine.
“Horse,” says Claire, pointing at a page in the book
of a photo of a drawing of a horse on a cave wall
seventeen thousand years ago. Perhaps she does
only know horses from profiles in books. Maybe

all her cows are fenced in. We get back in the car,
semi-determined to find something authentic.
“We could take D-31 to the caves at Bara-Bahau.”
It’s a cave with real markings, but the patterns
are hard to figure out, like the constellations.

We skip it and I buy rocks there instead—agate,
sodalite. “I’ll write their names on cards,” I think
as I drive on through the steady rain. “She’ll learn
the milky blue rock goes next to the big ‘S’ card.”
Claire continues to play with the doll, sewn by

Sylviane’s mother, who lives in a big old house
whose fireplace has inglenooks where you can
nuzzle and tell stories. One evening her mom tells
the tale of a great uncle--a tailor--who one night
on his way home between villages falls into

a wolf trap, with the wolf already there. All night
he snips his shears at the yellow eyes. At dawn
someone finds them and the wolf is killed.
Years from now Claire will discover Rene Magritte.
“Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” it will say below

his drawing of a pipe. By then the world
will have become quite young, with millions
moved to tears by holograms of lost loved ones.
She’ll see a future we’re as blind to as the stars,
as that cow she saw without pause or doubt

on the side of the road. It’s pouring now.
We’re well past Lascaux, twisting through
the hills, swerving to find a sign, a scrawl,
some horse on a wall, pointing not to heaven
but to dinner. And this? Call it a poem but

also something to puff on: could we see
more clearly if we named less?” “Why do we
have to learn this junk?” a kid asked one year
I taught rocks and stars. “So twenty years
from now you won’t see a rock and shout

‘Draco!’” Darkness is reining in the day.
“I doubt we’re gonna find anything real now.”
I glance in the mirror—Claire is asleep, her arms
wrapped tightly around her doll, and peeping out
the back of Grandma’s bonnet…that black snout.



A man drives by an intersection of
three streets where 25 years before
he and his lover met a guy in a bar
next to a laundromat who was reading
Sartre while waiting for his clothes to dry.

They became friends with this fellow
for a short period of time and his name
was David and one night he took them
up to his place, a large pie-sliced space
he shared with his brother on the third

floor of a building on the corner across
the street from the bar. The place had
big windows and was probably a dance
studio once and they had sleeping bags
in the corner and the rent was dirt cheap

because the neighborhood was still years
from being gentrified. As the man crosses
the intersection he sees that the building
with the windows is still there but the bar
is gone and a wedge-shaped slab of concrete

is all that remains of where David read
Sartre while waiting for his clothes to dry.
The lover drifted into her own future
and has not been seen in the 20 years
and the man wonders for a moment what

happened to David--if he went corporate,
lives in a cardboard box somewhere or
something less dramatic but anyway
unknowable now as the lover is, as all
arrangements are and the man drives on.


It’s not the past we really seek
but “the perfect words” of the present
in a language that makes a business of less.

Dreams, of course, are another order--
the always returning, always now,
and round as a morning in May.

This leaves, then, death--a scale
we practice best before sleep or
inside an arpeggio of words.

But let me speak a moment about
the past--I have just put the word
“then” between “leaves” and “death.”

This word of cause and condition
is “a good friend” for such a tentative
endeavor. Still, perhaps you’d prefer

something keener. “A fine companion?”
Tell me. Which are “the words, perfect”
in place of the past you really seek?


All work © 2001 M. J. Rychlewski

M. J. Rychlewski is a poet and a playwright. His first volume of poetry, Night Driving, was published by the Wine Press in 1984. Over the years his work has appeared in many publications, including American Pen, Private Arts, and Conversation. His poem “An Early Work” recently placed in the Polyphony Press anthology The Thing About Second Chances Is.... A theater piece, My Atget, was performed at the VIA festival in Paris in 1994. His work will be appearing in upcoming issues of The Seattle Review and In Print. He lives and teaches in Chicago. He is pleased to contribute these poems to The Scream. He can be reached at mjrychlewski[AT]hotmail.com (replace [AT] with @). 


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