The flourescent light over the mailboxes is loose, it buzzes
and flickers at random moments
like a nervous tic come on you when you get too tired, a jerky muscle,
The office is jumpy with new graduate students, first-day jitters.
As I come downstairs to check my box I pray a little prayer
for a quick in-and-out, to outwit ambush,
run the gauntlet of chance encounters that bring committee assignments,
paperwork, other light-eating tasks —
but there’s a note
from my senior faculty mentor, a critique of my proposal to Research Council. Just 24
hours ago I was in Kentucky — biscuits and gravy,
scrambled eggs, fried apples, fresh sausage, fried potatoes and onions,
ten of us around Aunt Mae’s table sharing eight chairs
and the morning sun.
Such sudden shifts
can’t be good for a person. I am thinking of babies’ ears
as the airplane lifts, of sea creatures that come apart
when they’re brought up to the shallows
out of the deep that holds them together. I am turning
to go back upstairs when I see she was behind me all the time,
my mentor, watching me read her note.
What I need to do
in order to write a viable proposal, she tells me,
is go to Spain.
What I need to know
is who’s getting published in what magazines,
who’s getting readings and reviews, and where. That’s the only way
you can know what’s important, she says. Otherwise,
all those things you say in your proposal
about why those poets are important —
you can’t say that.
The flourescent light goes spastic.
Shouldn’t that mean “flowering light?”
We sat on Aunt Mae’s porch, while day spread to full bloom Uncle Robert told stories
about the house on Den Branch at the head of the holler.
When night began to open, he told about the war
and the mines — how he took a shortcut through a tunnel
and the black damp near got him.
Bobby was just two or three then, he said.
I never went back in. I had a little son,
I couldn’t be dying in no mine.
It hits me in the face like the flat side of a shovel —
I am spending my life on this job. I don’t want
Spain, or tenure — that scrip
that only gets you deeper into departmental debt.
I need to go home.
She’s sorry now, this woman who, as she says,
only wants me to succeed. I might have pushed you too hard
— she’s worried. Are you alright? Are you okay?
My face is too stunned to answer; it’s not just the surprise, there’s grief in it too,
for all the time, all the trying.
But my feet remember
what Uncle Robert said about the Davy lamps
the miners used to check for black damp — That light starts to flicker,
you drop everything, he said, and get the hell out.
— FROM ABZ (Marshall University, Huntington, West Virginia)
REPRINTED WITH THE AUTHOR’S PERMISSION