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  • Kelsey Hency

Michigan Hum

With their mid-century guitars and voices God made, a duo called The Milk Carton Kids turns over great golden elements—the waving wheat and headstrong light, silent whiskey flickers and  loom-spun notes breathed out—and sends one day chasing the next. 

“Michigan’s in the rearview now / Keep your hands where I could see ‘em,” they croon, as if escaping with the sacred.

I hummed these bars like swallowed plainsong during the early months of 2020. And I intended to sing them full voice, truest Michigan in my mirrors after a spring trek to Calvin University. But interventions come, keeping their secret place on a continuum between divine and profane.

A circle eventually finds its close point, and the conference returns next month; already my name goes ahead of me to Grand Rapids.

As 2020 goes, missing a writing conference counts only as a minor tragedy. Still, I feel the four-year ache trembling rooms carved out for friends dear and unknown, and mourn the lost poetry of being together. 

A circle eventually finds its close point, and the conference returns next month; already my name goes ahead of me to Grand Rapids. Both the expectation and creeping misgivings feel impossible to contain. 

No one splashes their feet in the same river twice; no author could perfectly rewrite their first book—even if they wished; and none of us look like we did four years ago. Am I a better or worse person? I don’t know what to tell you. Weariness and I are better acquainted—around the eyes, inside the bones. I can say that. 

Stretch out the last four years. Weeks after erasing mapped lines between Missouri and Michigan, I read an essay about sex and sacred stumbling ahead into a computer’s eyes, surrounded by the thumbnail faces of friends I meant to see. 

For months, I holed up in a wood-paneled office to write poems and the memoirs of somebody nobody knows. Good people published my waking dreams and, upon breaking the atmosphere, some words met chirping crickets and whistling winds.  

I tasted and named each botanical in bottles of gin; carved gray infinity symbols in sidewalks around my house; slept beside hospital beds and healing bodies; stared into the souls of warm Christmas lights; fell hard for Tranströmer, Glück and Kerouac.

Masked, I watched Punch Brothers serenade St. Louis with sweet and complicated songs, felt something like free as The War on Drugs beautifully bled all colors. Breathing in the air above Wrigley Field, I said “amens” while Bruce Springsteen confessed my very sins.  

With all the friends I missed, I watched America mend itself with expired dime-store glue. My theology shifted its weight and sent me walking off into only-God-knows-where. 

The depths of my hypochondria revealed themselves as I worried—at least once—about killing every one of my friends. And on too many nights, I imagined breaking apart into white-hot particles of light and just ... ending. 

Other songs hummed through me. I lifted my cracking voice, joining Ruston Kelly in telling our story, of looking for manna in everything we ate; kept my lips pursed when he sang, “God I wish I was quiet / But my head is full of bells.”

That trip left me grieving, but hungry for more of life’s good and wild honey. 

And, last summer, I traveled to Michigan, breathed in good breaths. One dying evening, somewhere across the south loop of a state park, a makeshift congregation sang psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, their voices heavenward wisps like the breath of their campfire. 

Twenty feet over and five feet up from where I sat among the faint echoes of someone else’s rapture, a beloved one lay sleeping and sick, leaving me to wonder who God cared about more: the father, the son, or whoever the Holy Spirit was touching way over there. That trip left me grieving, but hungry for more of life’s good and wild honey. 

This year, I started watching sublime hangout movies like Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, escaping into fantasies of conversation and presence. So I look ahead, look north for what’s coming. We don’t even have to talk; I just want to hear you hum. 

I’m eager to sit beside Seth, Amarillo’s true poet laureate, and Jane, the hometown oracle. My soul needs to make stupid jokes with Courtney the birding pastor, and trade kindnesses with Dan, who loves the Cincinnati Reds among so many other good things. 

I’m ready to mouth silent “thanks” to the poets who kept me alive, and extend poor handshakes to editors who made me make sense, their efforts just below godliness. So many other friends will wander through Grand Rapids, those I expect and those I expect to surprise me. To invoke them all would be like naming an entire cloud of witnesses. 

Five hundred and thirty-three miles away on this Tuesday afternoon, I sit typing and scared: of making eye contact with my shoes, of how quick I’ll bail out of a conversation, unspooling rambling sentences about Twin Peaks or how much I love sentences. God, there are bells in my head. 

The part of me always knocking on wood gives way to the part of me that hopes against hope.

But in early 2024, I kept the car close, driving west to Kansas City to sit near beloved writers. Now I know I should have stayed longer, but even those few hours linger. Some small corner of my soul healed up, not with old glue but with delirious poems about Clay Aiken and stories that spilled Oklahoma soil through their fingers. 

I need more. I need you, my friends who live like our dear Ursula LeGuin wrote, the “realists of a larger reality.” I need to live in my body the truth of what we do. This writing life, so often solitary, binds us across the miles and we gather in rooms for the same reasons we create—to bring the ineffable into some sort of relief.  

The part of me always knocking on wood gives way to the part of me that hopes against hope. I cannot wait to enjoy the reunion for an event we never attended, and then drive home turning over great golden elements—the dying light above Missouri’s border, your poems, the invisible shining string which tethers us. 

The hum of these four years will become a song: Michigan in the rearview now, the looted sacred tucked away, and my hands where anyone can see them: at 10 and 2 yet somehow raised in worship. 


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