Roger Mitchell

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This review appeared in Bloomsbury Review last year.
Review of Roger Mitchell, Lemon Peeled the Moment Before: New and Selected Poems 1967-2008 (Keene, NY: Ausable Press, 2008), ISBN 978-1-931337-41-0 paperback, 230 pp., $16.00.

Although Roger Mitchell has been publishing poems for 40 years, I was not aware of his work until I came across his 1997 volume Braid a few months ago.  The title poem, a 13-page production in syllabics, is a self-described “poem that thinks its way toward itself,” [p. 101]  It is a poem of free associations harnessed in a strict form, proceeding in fits and starts, long lines juxtaposed with short ones, and brief apercus next to passages like this: “Opposed, too, to the intractability of things, / aforesaid tree, / which no language knows but which all pay homage to, / stumbling toward some approximation of / the breeze, which now moves the leafed-out branches in a / slow, almost drugged, / dance, though a dance in place.” [p. 102]  If Henry James had had a love child with Emily Dickinson, you know the kid would have written like this.
Braid stimulated me to want to read more of Mitchell’s work, and Lemon Peeled the Moment Before brings together new poems with others selected from four decades and nine books.  In the very first poem in this book, collected from a volume published in 1971, Mitchell reveals his gift for striking simile: “All around him, the prairie is on fire. / The flames snap like a purse above his head.” [“Natty Bumppo,” p. 3]  We see the gift run true in a volume published 17 years later: “The back of your mind collapses / like a rotted wall.  Inside, a tiny / mute swarm of memories writhes in the light, / slithers into the darkness.” [“Afternoon at the Guide Museum,” p. 69]  Or later still, “the oaks, / which all came down like thick lava and stopped, / stuck in the air.” [Truth of the Matter, p. 144]
Mitchell’s poems often have their settings in places he has taught – Indiana, Colorado, Poland, among others – and, though he can marvelously describe a landscape, the landscape usually seems subordinate to the mind observing it.  Mitchell always sees himself seeing.  Sometimes, as in “The Monologues of Verplanck Colvin,” a series of poems spoken in the voice of an Adirondacks surveyor a hundred years ago, Mitchell even sees the land though the eyes of a man recalling a landscape of a yet earlier time:
            Yes, that was me muttering through the grime
            of back street Albany in 1912.
            I was thinking of Burgoyne’s army . . .
            I could almost hear the flat whack of the axe,
            the crackle of falling trees, the curses,
            as the road nosed forward . . .
            You can still see bits of the road, or could,
            logs laid out like corpses after battle.
            Blaze marks, too, still visible on trees,
            not many, but a few.   [pp.74-75]
About a decade ago, Mitchell moved to the Adirondacks, and he is clearly in love with the mountains and their people.  There’s a delightful poem about taking a lawnmower to have its blade sharpened by one of the last old timers who will do such work.  What the poet thought would be a quick errand turns into an afternoon’s visit with the man and his wife.  Bemused, Mitchell ends his poem
            I am getting my mower sharpened
            by first having my flaked faith in the ways of people
            touched up and my disinclination to old age
            abated.  It is costing me eight dollars.
                                                                        [Why We’re Here, p. 147]
Now in his seventies, Mitchell’s most recent poems detail his own encounters with mortality.  “Sitting Sideways, Doing Chemo” is a lovely poem to a wife undergoing treatment for cancer.  “Away From Home” begins with the poet surveying his ageing flesh in the mirror.  And in “Giving a Box of Books Away,” Mitchell bids farewell to his earlier life:
            My underlinings in Proust, my shouts
            in the margins of Dostoevsky, my first
            edition of Goodbye Wisconsin, my
            Swap and Go: Home Exchanging
            As a Way of Life, as the way of my life
            becomes clear and less cluttered,
            I set afloat in the sleepy bulrushes
            of the delta like a child I couldn’t keep.
            Goodbye ambition, goodbye to keeping
            around what even memory lets go.  [p. 197]
Yet there is comfort in this letting go, as Mitchell has always been at home in a world at once undying and transient.  As he writes in “Four Hundredth Mile,” “I have tried to love what I thought was the world, / but the world moved.  I will love the move instead.” [p. 97]