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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Please don’t let what was get in the way of what’s next.
Don’t forget that what’s to come hasn’t come yet.
– Devendra Banhart, “I Remember”
I remember one gray afternoon our father drove over a little kitten. We three boys were in the bed of the pickup. From under the truck unraveled gravel and gravel and gravel and then kitten. We screamed. He slammed on the brakes. He probably thought one of us had fallen out. His heart must have leapt up in his throat like a salmon leaping in a freshet. We had just fed this kitten a meal of tuna fish and now we could see both the kitten gasping in the gravel and the tuna fish splayed out upon the little rocks. Our father hopped out of the truck and went back and did something I think involving pliers. He made sure to crouch so we couldn’t see. We were inconsolable, wailing and wailing, but he was so tired, there was so much work to do. He told us to sit back down. I don’t know what he did with the kitten. There was grass everywhere, so… I remember how fast we drove through the fields, faster than normal, and how we sat back there in the bed amongst four or five white bags full of trash, the corners of the sharp things tearing the plastic a little, the empty tuna fish can somewhere in one of them, the three of us still crying, but more softly.
I remember thunderstorms. The lights would flicker, then go out. The microwave would flash noon, a crisis of time. The house would creak, as if getting ready to leap, and upstairs a door would slam itself shut with finality, as if involved in a domestic argument. Then outside the wind would start screening its biopics in the trees. If the phone rang it was our father: he’d heard something on the radio and we should go down into the cellar. The cellar smelled like a cellar and winter clothes and when we were last cold. The stairs were just pieces of kindling, the railing just an old length of pipe bolted into the cement foundation, thin as our wrists. The bulbs down there were bare but their light was softened by the cobwebs that covered them like the hair that insists on still covering the skulls in coffins as if embarrassed for them. The cobwebs were thick as cotton candy a kid won’t finish, and in them were suspended thousands of petrified spiders like the heaven where spinsters who were good go. They were albino-white and their tiny knees were fixed in forty-five degree angles like the knees of doomed jockeys. We hurried under them, ducking and looking up like autistic children oversensitive to stars, to the back room where the house was less likely to collapse on us in the event of a tornado. The floor was packed dirt like bare feet make. It looked like a place where runaway slaves were concealed. Ranged along an old workbench were rows of frangible Mason jars full of preserved vegetables harvested springs before we were born. The preserves looked like the brains of the insane kept for research. The thunder trembled through them all at once. We could hear above us the nails that held the house together groaning in the wood, and through the tiny ground-level window we could see the leaves the wind had plucked from the trees blowing by with terrible velocity, like the arrows of young archers gaining confidence in an orchard. But where we were it was dark and cool and quiet, and smelled of genealogy and potatoes.
I remember the toy soldier shop in Galena the day my mother declared I could choose any one I wanted. We stood frozen under the mistletoe of bells, then stepped quietly amongst those long tables upon which were arrayed tiny lead soldiers of every war. The man who’d made them was sitting in the back room: at the rare sound of the jostled bells he had lifted his head peacefully, like a deer the moment before it’s shot, and set the soldier he was painting down on the table. It was to be a Russian soldier of the Crimean War. The man abandoned the Russian soldier without a face to come out and see what we wanted. He was a large man, with a graying beard, and what I remember most about him was how heavily he breathed, like a father sawing wood for a tree house. He was very glad to hear that I was being allowed to choose any soldier I wanted. There were so many to choose from, all the army and cavalry of every war in history, spread out in formation upon every surface, facing the same way as if facing the same enemy, which was silence. My eyes fell upon a Civil War soldier in Yankee blue, with rolled knapsack on his back. I liked him because he wasn’t loading his musket, or charging with fixed bayonet, or peering down the barrel of his gun like a sharpshooter. He was standing in a pose of relaxation, one hand on his hip, like that drawing of Whitman that appeared in the original Leaves of Grass, “leaning and loafing at ease”. His gun was an afterthought: it may as well have been a sapling growing up from the little platform of green ground he stood upon. His buttons were gilded gold, his face flat, a little flawed, almost featureless save for the eyes, which were exquisite and blue. “Go ahead,” he said, seeing which one I wanted. He said it as if I’d chosen the only one he would have let me leave with. So I reached in amongst the ranks and picked him up. Death is the hand of a boy who has been very good.
Austin Smith remembers growing up on a dairy farm in Illinois. He has published four chapbooks of poems: Wheat and Distance, Instructions for How to Put an Old Horse Down, and Midwestern Death Poems (with Michael Theune) from Longhouse Press, and In the Silence of the Migrated Birds from Parallel Press. His first full collection of poems, Almanac, was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Contemporary Poets Series and will be published by Princeton University Press in September. Smith is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University.