Michigan Sestina

by Chad Sweeney

Believe me, I’ve tried to understand winter.
It grows out from no root and no
seed, yet sways like a meadow toward the mind,
shifts and sways on its white stem and is
a figure of uncertainty over hills of sleep,
where aging factories gesture to a train

and mills are shuttered over river ice. The train
crosses a bridge from Michigan into winter,
its silos and tobacco fields framed by sleep,
inscrutable and nine hells down. No
horses center the pastures, and the sky is
its own pasture, a drift of snow over the mind.

Three crows motionless on a fence, in the mind
are moving, crossing the windows of the train
like Japanese characters whose sense is
effortless, a calligraphy of winter
whose shifting figures evoke a No
theater, three masks in a theater of sleep.

But the land draws its own lessons from sleep,
the heaping of frozen images in the mind,
Polish teachers in a birch grove and no
one to bury them, shoved from the train,
the faces of the dead occupy the whole winter,
one borderless nation of snow. Memory is

unable to bury them—what was and what is,
and what never was, heaped together in sleep.
History erects a statue to winter,
a wolf leaves its tracks across the mind,
the train and the memory of the train
arrive on one line, though no

station is there to greet them and no
one is getting on or off. Is
it a manner of irony pulls this train
west toward Chicago with its cargo of sleep?
My forehead against the window doesn’t mind
closing its one eye against winter,

the train moves deeper into memory, no
train and no winter, but one crow is
changed in sleep to the Japanese character for mind.

CHAD SWEENEY is the author of three books of poetry, Parable of Hide and Seek (Alice James, 2010), Arranging the Blaze (Anhinga, 2009), and An Architecture (BlazeVOX, 2007) and editor of Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sounds: The Teachers of WritersCorps in Poetry and Prose (City Lights, 2009). Sweeney’s work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Crazyhorse, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Black Warrior, and elsewhere. He is coeditor of Parthenon West Review and is working toward a Ph.D. in literature at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where he teaches poetry and serves as assistant editor of New Issues Press.