Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011

[Poem + Commentary]

Terry Hertzler


The last time he visited, we drove north
to Sequoia National Park, spent three days
at the Dorst Creek campground, hiked
to Moro Rock, the giant redwood groves,
air clear and warm, massive trunks scarred 
by fires that destroyed lesser vegetation. 
At night we played hearts and spades 
by lantern light, talked philosophy
and history and religion as we did 
in college 30 years before, banged pots 
and yelled when curious black bears came 
looking for food (saw six that weekend), 
sat around our campfire late each evening 
watching flames dance as the nights cooled 
and we realized that summer was almost over. 
“I’ve stopped climbing Squaw Peak,” he said, 
“just don’t have the energy anymore.” 
And tonight, I stand in my courtyard 
in San Diego, searching for the stars 
that once filled the sky, thinking of Phoenix,
the 70s, all those nights we’d hike Squaw Peak, 
occasionally glimpse the great horned owl 
that owned the mountain, sit at the summit 
watching city lights laid out below us—and 
sometimes, we’d stand on that peak and yell, 
just yell for no reason, lungs strong and filled 
with joyous abandon, as if it were all some sort 
of celebration.
—March 25, 2010


On “Michael”:
Commentary by Terry Hertzler

I wrote the poem, “Michael,” to read at the funeral of my oldest friend, who died at 58 after a long struggle with Hepatitis C. Michael Mullet was my roommate in the mid-1970s, when we were both attending Arizona State University. We were friends for close to 40 years, even though I left Phoenix after college. We talked regularly and visited one another several times a year. When my mother moved from Ohio to New Mexico, Michael always opened his home to me on my drives between San Diego and Las Cruces, and he’d often come to Southern California on vacation, sometimes alone, sometimes with his son and daughter. I always looked forward to those visits.

It can be difficult, of course, to write occasional poetry, and even more difficult to avoid sentimentality when writing about the death of someone you love. It’s also difficult to select from 40 years of good memories (I remember only one argument between us in our long friendship, one that arose from my stupidity, which Michael quickly and graciously forgave).

Michael loved hiking, backpacking, bicycling and the outdoors in general, and we had taken many trips together in the Arizona deserts and mountains, and throughout California. So I knew that whatever I wrote would have to include at least one of those trips.

When we were roommates, we also often climbed Squaw Peak, a 2,608-foot-high chunk of rock in the center of Phoenix that made for a good short hike and excellent workout, especially if you took the 1.2 mile Summit Trail at a jog, which we often did, just to see who could reach the top first. The view from the top was spectacular. On a clear day, you could see Picacho Peak, near Tucson, as well as Four Peaks in the Mazatzals and the other mountain ranges and peaks that surround Phoenix. At night, the view was perhaps even better, the greater Phoenix valley offering a compelling light show, the mountaintop surprisingly quiet in the middle of the city.

The effects of the Hepatitis C Michael contracted (he’d shared needles doing drugs as a teenager, although he’d left that lifestyle behind by the time I met him), didn’t start affecting him seriously until he was in his 40s. Over the years he had good periods and bad periods. For a time in the 1990s, he was on a short list for a liver transplant at the UCLA Medical Center and I was his primary support member. But his condition improved and he was moved further down the list and stopped carrying the beeper that would have informed him a matching donor liver had become available.

The trip to Sequoia National Park mentioned in the poem was during one of his better periods, although the disease was beginning to seriously affect his health and energy level. It was the last camping/hiking trip we took together. It was also the last time he came to visit me. For the last ten years of his life, I saw him only when I passed through Phoenix, although that was still two or three times a year. And we talked on the phone every few weeks, especially as his health worsened.

Because I wanted to honor his life and our friendship, I tried to make the poem celebratory. In our 20s we were a bit goofy at times and, along with our friend, Steve Hufford, occasionally gave into silliness, like standing at the top of Squaw Peak yelling as loud as we could just because we could.

Like much of my poetry, “Michael” is a narrative poem. I believe a thin line exists between narrative poetry and short prose pieces, a line I jump back and forth across regularly and without compunction. And while I seldom write in traditional forms or use end rhyme, I believe all poetry should contain at least a subtle music, a resonance or flow composed from syntax and the use of alliteration, assonance, consonance, and other tools our language offers. “Michael” is not a prose poem, however, since the line breaks are there for a reason (perhaps one apparent only to me, but there you are).

I hope the poem conveys just a little of the joy our friendship brought me. I can’t imagine having a better friend than Michael. I miss him. I loved him.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury