Brett Kell (bio)



A Map of the Earth

- “It’s a skinny, awkward land” - Gary Snyder



A woman louvers open her mini-blinds to the
morning, dusty slats peeling
backward into the world, a mechanism cantilevered by a twist
of arthritic wrists. The yard opens to her, a Crayola
box three-quarters full and gaining – fuschias, periwinkles, olive,
cimmarron, tea leaf, the genealogy of color illuminating itself
thousandfold before her. All of this planted before
she was a widow, the old man still chatting with neighbors over
beers on the gravel road.
There is a curb now, a little guardrail hedging
lawn. Suburban topography isn’t what it used to be,
and vermillion lips a little less so.

Her petunias have gone wilty, Candytufts a shock of
color unborn at garden’s edge. Gaillardia, ditto. But the primrose
& Showy Beardtongues look good, dropseed
and Coreopsis looking better, the Shasta daisies need
more light, she thinks - light will do them
a great deal of good…
She will have to
work at revival, much the same as earlier this season
when, despite her deliberate vivisection,
the red poppies fled our mortal coil.

Mother died of
natural causes, they say. She never thought
brandy was natural, but 49% of all brandy sold
nationally in the mid-60’s was consumed
in Wisconsin, 12 times more than other states. Brandy,
pisco, ouzo, kirschwasser, grappa, slivovitz, eau de vie,
killers. The sickness, they called it. She needed help,
needed a drink like a hole in her dainty head, like
a third leg -- a crutch, it was said -- but what for?
Brandy is distilled from the fruit of far-off places, plucked
from furrows just like ours, little bubbles of soil
in careful rows. Wisconsin was the dairy state,
the brandy state,
the cranberry state,
the land of the Great Lakes. Her fertility never waned, yet
brandy turned tail.
A ditch could grow saffron in ground this good.

But brandy made her sing, gave her back her beauty, she thought,
brandy undressed her, slid into her
with a tenderness she hadn’t known.
Brandy is fruit fallen from grace, a forbidden
apple in the Garden of Eden
slopped into Gascony black oak barrels for
two years’ maturation, bottled, labeled, shipped and sold
at the price of a thirty-eight year marriage.


She wished her garden could talk for all the time
they spend, bent toward one another like a curvilinear
still life of nature vs. nurture.
Her husband would have loved it; not the garden so much as
its reflection in her face – the way her brow seemed
to melt at its edges with admiration for it.
Love beguiles us, moves beyond our skins
into ether. His love moved beyond on a Thursday in an ’88 LeSabre.

We suffer for our art and the earth suffers for us,
a fission of cause and effect.
Mother’s brandy, daughter’s unforgivable clumsiness; each will
burn them, each will drag them to a place they’d rather avoid,
the way a broken wrist that is never set makes an upturned palm into
a caricature of grace.

Soon, the garden will die away in deference to winter,
ice and wind turning her careful work into a lunar landscape portrait,
to be squinted at through an undersized dining room window.
A woman’s responsibility to her earth
is no more than an epithet; her pail and
trowel are Adam and Eve.
For every year of her glaucoma, a fig leaf.


So many lives have passed whose history
has become everything to us,
become the unblinking eyewitness to a fresh
wreck, bodies still passing from the world
on astral stretchers. They are carted off like crates of wheat, one drop
of blood for one severed stalk, harvest to catacombs.

On the stove, a screaming tea kettle is a signal flare, a train
whistle – things roll back in to the station despite us, bring
their luggage home for a winter, pack it away tight -- musty
and no less heavy at the spring thaw’s coming.
We are not meant to forget its purpose, our tea kettle;
satisfaction in the belly, elders
clearing crop dust from their throats. War makes jobs,
they say, but the earth makes work. The little ones in the room
stare severely, knowing
that wisdom has just been passed through a small space into
a great big one. It will take years to find.

There were only as many children on a farm as could
be of use, their small hands wrapped around some implement
as if God himself, in his callous mercy, had placed it there
in a sing-for-your-supper benediction.
A boy with an angular stare who would become my grandfather
toed the dirt in a field of corn as if there were gold
hidden, gleaming, just below the surface.
His worn boots carried their own stories through the stalks, kid stuff,
the kind I would hear from his mother, Lorena,
so many years down the line.

You’d learn the names of neighbors from seventy years back,
their crops, pets, social aptitudes and conversations,
her memory a great steel gate, her recitation of years like
the memorization of the Periodic Table –

15, phosphorus, a little girl in the midst of war, dark hair and
slender build, her mind’s eye a Midwestern oracle.

31, gallium, with two kids and land to work, she chokes on
flue dust from burning coal. It wets glass and forms a mirror,
looking not scraped and old but oddly and fantastically gleaming.
Lorena sees herself in it, porcelain cheeks and all.

59, praseodymium, a rare-earth oxide and one of the most
refractory substances known, the grandbabies clamoring into her lap–
my father is one of them, Kerry,
and Grandpa John’s thick fingers hold him
steady. He looks down at this boy, the oldest, and
pictures a tool belt, a hammer knocking against his leg in the sunshine.

77, iridium, two great-grandsons born, carpenters’ boys–one will lose his leg
in four years, the other will write poetry. Neither will
walk the moon in his lifetime, for they, in pursuit of
what lies under its dim veil,
have other plans.

96, curium, history accumulating in the bones like a silent toxin –
its namesake Marie defending junk science, it was called,
a frail girl playing with minerals in a potato cellar!
Old age will kill us, Marya. We won’t need
your x-rays, your atom bomb, your slight fingers
to dig our holes.

Lorena hasn’t made her schaum torte in years –
strawberries are out of season, you see, and her hands shake.
The boys grow wiser and understand that gluttony is
bad manners,
but that squirming at a table in a tiny white kitchen
with strawberry juices dotting their shirts
could do nothing to diminish the pride in her face.
They want to imagine,
as old men, looking at a faded photograph of her in a
strawberry patch, smiling.

I watch Grandpa pour salt
from shaker to palm, a test of sorts
to a young boy’s eye,
looking down into it for a moment as if salt were prayer, as if this salt, his,
will bring to bear each quiet, indulgent laugh.
He gives it a shake and lets go,
each tiny white granule settling like mist over his meat and potatoes.
Supper, we have always called it.
Every meal has plotted our history, ever so carefully,
on a map we have never seen.