THE FLOWER AT THE END OF THE WORLD

Immortal mortals, mortal immortals, one living the other’s death
and dying the other’s life. 

                                                —Heraclitus

 

 

It was a 1954 Ford pickup truck that stopped

on the shoulder of the road in front of me.

The driver leaned over and popped open the door

as I trotted up. Getting in, I looked him over,

A big man with long silver hair and a cowboy hat,

and I knew him at once as Heraclitus disguised

As a shaman of the Hopi nation. Where you heading?

he asked. End of the world, I said. He nodded.

Not surprised, he told me. I’m heading there myself.

 

 

*

 

Next a hooded rat guided me through a tunnel

every available surface of which—walls,

Floor, ceiling—held a door. There were hundreds,

perhaps millions, of every shape and size.

I traveled the shaft for hours, walking on jambs,

bumping into lintels, tripping on knobs and latches,

The rat scampering ahead of me. I struggled

not to step on his hideous tail. At last he stopped

And scratched on a door set in the wall. How do you know

I asked him, that it’s this one? He squinted at me

In disgust. It has your name all over it, he said. Can’t you read?

 

 

*

 

Then I was back in my second grade classroom

doing a timed reading test. I opened the book

And nothing I saw made sense. The rat was right,

I thought. I can’t read. But just then the teacher,

Kindly Mrs. Mullins—I was her pet—came to me,

draped me in a black cape, led me to the back

Of the room to the science table, and locked me in my cage.

 

*

 

But the timer kept ticking. I was failing the test.

I would become a laughing-stock, be thrown

Out of school, make a life in a cardboard box

under an overpass. My cage was a cardboard box,

The traffic was thundering above me, I had a crust

of sandwich dug from a dumpster, I had a grimy robe

St. Francis gave me. St. Francis sat next to me

His back against the abutment. He was covered in birds.

Listen, kid, he said in a rat-like voice, the secret of life

       is a secret. Stop worrying. All of us are homeless bums.

 

 

*

 

At the shelter, they gave me a bowl of soup, a map,

and a set of car keys. It was a pleasure

To have a Mercedes, but the map was a treasure,

there were instructions in a pirate’s scrawl

And at the center an X. You’d think the end of the world

would be that obvious. The problem is, the road

Is your life, and your life is a secret. I drove

for hours on the Autobahn, the Mercedes

Was a dream. It felt like oblivion on wheels.

I could drive this way forever.

 

 

*

 

Listen, the rat said. He turned up at the crucial moment

I was struggling to change a flat tire. You’re a moron.

You’ll never get there this way. Take the short cut.

There was a naked path by the highway

Leading into a littered bog. What do you think? I asked.

St. Francis shrugged. Six of one, he said.

So I left the car teetering on its jack, and headed

out through the sumac and muddy beer cans.

The rat waved its tail. Turn left, St. Francis said,

when you get to the middle of nowhere.

 

 

*

 

The middle of nowhere is an X.

It’s a clearing in the middle of a forest

Midway of course in life’s journey of course,

where vultures circle. I watched them awhile—

They were a great grim dance in a grim gray sky—

and meditated a little. Maybe I prayed a little.

I’m not sure what the difference is. When I turned

left, I was in a whipped-out trailer park.

 

 

*

 

Everything was abandoned, the cheap mobile homes,

the swing sets and sandboxes, the folding chairs,

A dented blue tricycle lying on its side, one wheel turning.

I walked up and down the rows, all the trailers alike,

Windows broken out, axles rusting. When I turned a corner,

I saw him sitting on a camp stool. His cowboy hat

Had a gold medallion on the crown, and he wore

a bolo tie with a turquoise clasp. So you finally got here,

He said, and he pointed at the last trailer, which bore a banner,

Blue, with gold lettering: Welcome to the end of the world.

 

 

*

 

The trailer was clean and empty except for a wooden table

by the window on which someone had set a shallow dish

With a jonquil growing in rocks and water, its bulb bare

the way people force them to bloom indoors.

It had been there a little overlong, its three white blossoms

browning at the edges, and the foliage

Sickly and limp. I got some water from the sink

but I knew it was futile. The timer was ticking,

The test was going on, and the flowers had the faces

of my wife and daughters—I could see them clearly there

At a great distance, fading from me, but the perfume

of the jonquil was oddly like an orchid, or a poppy,

Or a black rose, and St. Francis was saying You should have paid

       more attention to the birds, and the rat was saying

Humans make such a big deal of it, and Heraclitus

said nothing. He pointed, standing by the open door.

 

 

 

T.R. Hummer is the Recipient of the Richard Wright Prize for Literature and a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, and is an internationally-recognized poet and scholar who was born and raised in Macon, Mississippi. His latest book of poems, Skandalon, was published by LSU in 2014,and a new book of essays, Available Surfaces, appeared in the University of Michigan Press’s “Poets on Poetry” series in August 2012.  His forthcoming book, Eon, will be published by LSU in 2018.

Current Issue #69 April 2017
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