Updated: Jun 4
By Maril Crabtree:
The Flapper Press Poetry Café celebrates poetry from the globe and features unique poets of all ages. This week, we've invited a guest editor, Maril Crabtree—a renowned poet who has been featured on our site—to interview poet Mitchell Untch.
Mitchell Untch lives in California. Partial publications include Beloit Poetry Journal, Poet Lore, North American Review, Confrontation, Nimrod Intl, Natural Bridge, Owen Wister, The Catamaran Reader, Grey Sparrow, Illuminations, Tusculum Review, and Telluride Institute. His book, Memorial with Liminal Space, was recently published by Driftwood Press and has been nominated for a National Book Award.
Please Meet Mitchell Untch!
Maril Crabtree: Mitchell, congratulations on your new collection, Memorial with Liminal Space. You and I first met through my website when you asked about my editing services. When you sent me your poems, I was impressed with their lyricism and unique imagery. Your poems left me breathless and stayed in my mind for weeks. Yet, you always encouraged me to challenge you to go further. What can you share about your writing process?
Mitchell Untch: I believe that poems ultimately write themselves. I simply allow my imagination to take hold and take me as far as it wants to take me. Sometimes a poem can go through several drafts. Sometimes they arrive after only a couple of drafts. You can always improve upon a work, because as writers we’re always learning, always growing. There’s probably not a writer alive who hasn’t looked back at a work of theirs only to find areas that can be improved on. It’s part of growth. I’ve learned to write with humility.
MC: In other writing, you have shared some details about growing up with a stepmother who was “unnaturally cruel” and a father who was emotionally distant. Yet, your poems about family have an almost dreamlike quality, with a ring of truth, nevertheless. How have those memories affected you? How do they show up in your work?
MU: The psychological imprints that your childhood brings stay with you your entire life. As I get older, I grow more into myself. The trick is that, no matter how you are raised, you learn to grow from your experiences and create something beautiful from them.
I don’t want to live a tragedy; I want to live a life of hope and encouragement.
Shakespeare’s tragedies are sublimely beautiful. There’s no hatred there. There’s no animosity. It’s all exploration. It’s all a dive into the human soul.
MC: Speaking of tragedy, many of your poems deal with the death of your twin brother, who died of HIV-AIDS just a few months before a treatment was found, while you also had HIV-AIDS but survived. You write that this “haunts me to this day” and that through this life-changing event you “came to understand over the years that separation is a myth.” Can you say a little more about what you discovered and how it comes through your poetry?
MU: Many times, when I go on long walks, I talk to all the people in my life who’ve impacted me, whether dead or alive. I speak their names. They are buried inside me. If all we are as human beings is spirit, then how does any living human being ever leave us? Continuity is everywhere in life. Where there is death, there is resurrection. I’m not a religious person, nor do I follow any religious indoctrination. For me, a thought gets its root from a culmination of our personal knowledge, experience, and understanding of life, a fluid process to say the least. From this culmination, I explore my faith and understanding of life through poetry.
MC: Are there any poets you feel aligned with or who have been mentors for you?
MU: Rilke’s writings seek this essential struggle for understanding the why, who, and what we are. When I read Rilke, I feel a kind of ecstatic beauty. To me, it’s as if he’s allowing his stream of consciousness to take precedent. A flood of thought, if you will.
And isn’t that the trick? To make poetry seem effortless?
The irony, of course, is that we know that it does take effort! I’ve read a lot of poets over the years. I think it’s healthy to read a wide variety of poets, as well as other great writers. I started reading Shakespeare when I was seventeen. From there, I read Balzac, Zola, Solzhenitsyn, Chekov. All great writing informs the writer, no matter the genre. Of course, Whitman had a great impact. Other more contemporary poets like Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, Ann Carson, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Gerald Stern proved to be invaluable.
MC: Do you have any final words of advice for us?
MU: I always lead with the heart when I write. Trust the uniqueness of your being. No two hearts are alike.
Express your individuality, which inevitably leads to the universality we all innately feel a kinship with.
A writer once asked me if I found the results of my work cathartic in any way. As a writer, the deeper I dive into myself, the less cathartic I feel. It’s endless discovery. Everything has a voice. I think my job is to listen.
I wrote "Eden" in the hope of finding an answer to explain what was happening right before my eyes, all the bodies dying, all the faces disappearing, trying to figure out where I fit in. I watched my twin brother die and conjured up images I had of us growing up together, in the midst of nurses bringing him his medications, turning his body “the color of Fall” in his hospital bed. I was writing a love letter to him, conjuring our years together growing up. Of course, there was no answer to what was happening. The poem tries to find one, but it fails in that regard.
I need an answer. There are no answers.
Nurses on nightshift—angels looking for wings,
Christ’s night brides wandering the ward—
doctors—unbirthed miracles imbued with ambient light.
We were told to fear the monster
knitting fingers under the bed.
We didn’t know it could be beautiful if you made it like fire.
I want to recall every detail:
how they turned your body the color of fall,
rotated sheets on your bed, unrolled them over your chest,
a bed of white roses in a half-moon glow,
a benediction of snow, machines flickering blue-red-blue-red,
wheezing like those floats we laughed at every 4th of July
standing on the corner with our shirts off,
radiant in the hot summer sun.
How they wheeled you off to radiology
rounding the corners of the hallways,
the way I remember growing up popping wheelies
with grocery carts, wobbling alongside aisles of soup cans, potato chips
spilling from our mouths onto the bleached linoleum,
men in coats as white as Mother’s oleander,
scuffling their paper shoes like kites scaling windless summer air.
How they unfolded your body like a love letter,
emptied containers of needles,
beaks of syringes, pulled their fingers deep
into the glove’s sunny sheen, humming show tunes,
adjusting shunts as though they were adjusting your tie,
bruises strung like violets up the light blue thread of your arms.
I want to remember the yank of curtains—
the halo of light surrounding your bed,
the smell of urine and Pine-sol, the temporary misshapen fragrance
of air, dispensers of evergreen, the shape, size, the jello’s luminous glow,
rooms with windows you could look out of with only the lens of an eye,
everything upside down, carnivalized, the night in a dark blue suit,
pinstriped, sporting a crystal corsage, hooks on the shower curtain
skirting the metal rod, water that slid over your shoulders,
down the ravine of your back, water over a fall,
a rosary, the beaded bones, shadows passing under the door,
schools of fish, their silver-tipped tails glistening.
That the days sitting by your bed, the otherworldly sea fogged in,
whispers—breaths of birds, flowers, petals, hands
inside the womb of our mother, lucent stems—fingers still touching.
I didn’t know it could be so beautiful—the swelling of flowers,
the bright metal walls of a crib, the bluish tint of the television,
a blessing, the dazzling scalpel.
I didn’t understand the suddenness of what was happening:
lesions of rose, of periwinkle, clinging like vines to your face,
pulling like a weed at the thick red root of your heart,
dividing your organs cell by cell, liver, kidney,
how God could create heaven and earth,
the Garden flush with the brilliance of every living thing,
your body a perfect world for a perfect virus.
The more a loss seems unfathomable, the more it seems we try to bring it back to life through memory. It can be a snapshot of a moment that you shared with someone, or it can be a lifetime. Life is a flurry of moments, each connected to the other, then suddenly gone. But it’s the beauty we discover through memory that binds us to love and a sense of eternity.
Nature experiences loss and renewal the same as we humans do. We are bound together by the root causes of existence. I often look to nature to discover the human element and am never surprised by our similarities. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter; Birth, Childhood, Adulthood, Old Age, Death. All are passages we inhabit in the process of existence. Look no further than the stars to experience love—translucent, effervescent, heaven.
Trees remember dying, each fall losing leaves, the bundled light.
The sun shines through them and rain colors the branches dark as rivers.
Swallows abandon them for warmer weather.
Barren, nothing sings to them in their warded state.
Then spring arrives and everything that once was blooms again,
the grass as though it’d never left, old hat, sky in hand, all desire.
Year after year what is broken is restored.
Unaccountable deaths. Unaccountable births.
And just when I think I’m beginning to understand the circular motion of birds
and the rings of trees, the trunks split, the opening wood,
and the unhappiness I feel, the night-grief and all the days remembering
your body in the doorway and how your laugh tilted the frame of your interior.
I remember the year of your dying, your footprints in the snow
like the hooves of elk and how simple your death seemed to me at the time
when I could not see clearly as when the body moves without thinking,
and could not imagine death as something wonderful.
I listened to the wind blowing through the empty trees,
remember the body’s dying as that of the tree, the lessening, the becoming.
Each morning our bed sheets darken. Shadows of tree limbs turn in the light,
the way light in rivers turn at certain times of the day never touching bottom
and everything that once was is again, only rising, and the trees fill again with light,
then color arrives before I know it, the copper maple, the oak, the burning red leaves
of the sycamore. I hear the sound of wood, the rings split, the dusk behind you.
This poem explores the ways in which grief never leaves you. It becomes a physical presence in your life. Grief as human as any living being makes its way back to you. It embodies your senses—sight, touch, taste, smell. And as much as you try to forget grief, you come back to him “on all fours, / A moon on water.” We harbor grief because it reminds us of joy. It connects opposites. It completes the circle of life. You lift it. It lifts you. Memory is the great emancipator.
Nothing stops him from opening
my mouth, entering quiet rooms
of my body, scent of his skin,
lips red as camellias.
If I speak his name no difference.
He always whispers in my ear.
I take him in, this grief.
He runs his fingers through the thickening
shadows of my hair.
Sometimes my food tastes of him
as a word enters my mouth.
He salts my tongue in the dark.
I see him only when I’ve stopped
looking. Like countless lanterns
through my ribs, up the long
ladder of my spine. He drifts
through the chambers of my heart.
Brilliant, this grief never dims.
I can’t look at him directly
no more than I can stare
into the face of the sun.
Knees, hips, shoulders, arms.
I am back to him on all fours,
a moon on water.
I lift his body. He lifts mine.
My wrists swell. You can read
when something reminds it
of what it once was, how an arm
once fell. Sometimes, I just
want to be recognized.
He comes to help me remember,
everything about you that was alive.
Maril Crabtree grew up in Memphis and New Orleans but has called the Midwest “home” for many years. A former French teacher, lawyer, peace activist, environmentalist, energy healer, and yoga instructor, she is grateful for poetry (hers and others’) as the loom that weaves her life-threads together. She agrees with Ed Hirsch that poetry is a “way of knowing, of honoring our solitudes and recognizing our interdependencies” and believes that a poem’s apothecary of words, of sounds spoken and absorbed, can be a healing force in our culture.
Her full-length collection, Fireflies in the Gathering Dark (Kelsay Books), was published in 2017. She has also authored three chapbooks and edited four anthologies of poetry and essays published by Adams Media. Her poems, essays, and short stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including I-70 Review, Main Street Rag, Persimmon Tree, Third Wednesday, Literary Mama, and Poet's Market. She previously served as poetry editor for Kansas City Voices and contributing editor for Heartland! Poems of Love, Resistance & Solidarity. More of her work can be seen on her website.