The Hell Test (Seven Springs)

Daniel Poppick


In the new music I’ve discovered nudity. Idiomatic footfall marking its route over a pane of glass, plunging into a darkened meadow. An interruption in the field filled with a vaporous microphone, titling the air with what it records—an animal running through the grass, stalking the glass, stepping onto it, lowering his snout, and whimpering as he smells the window under his feet.


I used to trespass regularly on a piece of property two towns over from where I grew up. Property is the syntax of the reddening horizon. But “property” isn’t the precise word. It was an estate, meadows and mansions, little monuments of infrastructure dotted along its outer edges: an abandoned stable, a shattered greenhouse, a rotting pump overgrown with flowering vines, an enormous house with a fountain in its garden, a pile of rubble, a swimming pool lined with marble. It was decadently abandoned. I told my parents about it at dinner. Alarmed, they told me not to go back, so I did as often as I could. I walked alone there, stoned at the end of my teens, meticulously surveilling myself for signs of profundity that no one credited me; if I could not articulate what I was, I would let the properties on which I trespassed speak for me. Was I of this ruined estate? The place looked like a horror movie even in broad daylight. I always stopped by a spot in the middle of a field, no building in sight, in which a skylight jutted out of the grass over what appeared to be a dank cellar below. There was a hatch a few feet away that I could have easily opened, but something stopped me. I listened for hours on end to music featuring psychedelic mandolin solos and lyrics about talking coyotes, played the role of Dan in an edgeless theater for an audience, such as it was, of one, and was, to what I think of as my present self, insufferable. I was magnetized to suburban ruins, especially if the ruins were under construction, as the knowledge that I was standing in the skeletal infrastructure of what might someday be some unknown family’s home filled me with a sharp longing that I loved because it would never be satisfied; I would never be able to gather enough of the multitudinous downed branches of adolescence to build the theater-in-the-round that I imagined adulthood to be. For instance, it was impossible to imagine owning a house. One day, walking through the woods of the estate alone, I felt a presence in the trees off to my left. I looked up and saw, fifty paces through the forest, a structure so large and ominous that the mere outline of it made my blood run cold. I’d never felt that way about a building. A stone tower with nothing around it. I stepped back, then stepped forward. It was January, and along its rim ice seemed to bubble from the ground. I walked up to it and marveled at how close it had been without my noticing. I craned my neck and saw a tree growing on top of it. I had been raised as a Reform Jew—in other words, an agnostic worshipper of narrative—which meant that this image appealed. I wanted to see it up close. I pried open the door to the tower and found a metal water silo inside, corroded and percussively dripping. In a helix around it a rusted set of stairs spiraled up. I tested the first one, and it seemed sturdy enough to hold my weight. I started walking up, slowly, wondering if I could find a latch in the ceiling to get to the top in the dark. Twenty feet up I heard a wet crunch. The stair snapped under me and clattered into darkness—I grabbed the rail, and the entire staircase swung free from its bolt. I caught myself between the tank and stone exterior, and slowly slid myself down, the mechanism clanking in on itself, my heart pounding, the back of my sweater torn up as I shimmied down. I looked down into the dark below my feet and shook. I hadn’t told anyone where I was, drunk on solitude and trying to thwart my parents. Had I fallen, broken a leg, been paralyzed, no one would have found me. I drove home and told no one what had happened. Later I heard a rumor from my hometown friends that the property was owned by Donald Trump. In 2009 I confirmed this when I saw the property on the news. The estate was called Seven Springs. Trump had purchased it in the mid-nineties so his sons could learn the art of the deal there, mowing massive lawns to win his love. He wanted to turn it into a golf course that would have poisoned New York City drinking water in an adjacent reservoir, but local government shut him down. It was on the news in that moment because he had rented it out to Muammar Gaddafi for the weekend. I returned and continued walking through the property regularly through my twenties. No one ever stopped me, but I never entered the water tower again. One day I plucked a discarded light switch from a pile of rubble. It’s on the shelf behind me as I write this, wiring exposed in the back, plugged into the air, no wall to take its charge. For years I’ve wondered if any footage exists of me walking around there. Had I stumbled into a panoptic wood rigged with cameras? But this seems too pristine a nightmare—too fragile and idiotically prophetic, the way a teen is—to be true. What would they have recorded? I wake in the middle of the night sometimes attempting to remember if or how I’ve broken any other laws, any reason anyone might have to hunt my friends or family, or hold my paycheck. I go to the window to look at the stars and wonder if we could ever live elsewhere. So the new regime is old in me. Beyond the present there is no place, so far as I can tell, where we can go to spend, be robbed, or pay.


In October 2016 Chris and I walked out on a glitzy lakefront in northern Michigan to catch the autumn sun’s swoll geometry before the evening events. We were rooming in finished basement bedrooms in the woods that weekend, generously put up by local empty nesters Jim and Laurie for a book festival in the town of Harbor Springs, co-organized by my friend from college, Katie. Chris’s car had broken down. The plan had been to head out from Brooklyn via Niagara Falls on Thursday and leave on Sunday afternoon, drive through the night, and return to our jobs early Monday morning with an extra cup of coffee to power us through our exhausted workday; in retrospect I realize that our designs were bent toward a particular variation of failure that thwarts one kind of labor for another. On our way out, just over the Canadian border past Niagara Falls, we found that the car would not accelerate past forty-five miles per hour. Reasoning that we were halfway there and this was fast enough to get us to our destination before Friday morning, when the festival started, we decided to press on. When we arrived a mechanic informed us that one of the exhaust pipes was completely clogged with soot and we were lucky the car had not caught fire while we were driving; there was no way we were getting back on the road until a new catalytic converter arrived from Detroit. It would be nine days. We walked to the coffee shop wearing the only black jeans in Harbor Springs, feeling like we were watching the scene from some bewitched movie theater far away. No question: we were fucking idiots. At the coffee shop we smiled at a woman’s beagle as it wagged its tail and sniffed our shoes, and the woman looked at us and asked where we were from. Chris said we had driven in from Brooklyn the previous night, and we would probably be staying for a spell. She smiled and said she’d heard Brooklyn had a wonderful literary culture, and then, looking down at her happy beagle, “We love dogs here. Do you guys have”—darting her eyes back and forth between us—“dogs?” Now we were walking by the lake, a chill cutting through our coats, doing Michigan accents, skipping stones, discussing what new jobs we might apply for, as it was now inconceivable that we wouldn’t be fired from our current positions. I took a photo of Chris’s silhouette cut out of the lake’s blinding glare, yawning deeply in a knit hat, some bright red autumn berries choking their way out of the branches above him. We sat under this tree, sun in our faces, and he patiently let me read him a new long poem I’d written a few months prior, “The Art Buyer,” just after Juan had fallen to his death in a waterfall in Las Nubes, Chiapas. We joked that we would probably die on Lake Michigan, covered in the blossom’s labor, nothing to show for ourselves but a few loose scraps of “experimental” poetry lodged in a lakeside dune and a broken Subaru back in town. We walked back past waterfront mansions wrapped in plastic sheets to protect them from the brutal winter. Jim and Laurie later told us over a bottle of wine that evening that we were lucky no one had chased us away with a gun—we had been trespassing on a private beach owned by some of the wealthiest families in the state. It was difficult, somehow, to imagine such nice people opening fire on us—but we conceded that we might have been filmed.


I came to a point at which I could only be persuaded that the most ornately phrased facts were true. Blessed with a tuneful voice, I painted, by livid numbers, my parents, my employers, the state. “Oh, so it’s twin language,” my therapist said of poetry. Fuming in an overstuffed chair, I rolled up my sleeves. But I was so furious for such nonspecific reasons that I couldn’t speak. “You seem angry. Can you talk about that?” It occurred to me, trying to block out the sounds of a baby crying in the waiting room and construction workers chanting reasonable demands outside, that although I had depended on it, poetry would not, in the end, save my life. On the contrary, sitting there I realized that something called “poetry,” loosely sketched from what I imagined that word to mean when I was a teenager, maybe a water tower with a tree growing from its roof on a fascist’s private property, might in fact at some point down the road play a hand in killing me. But what, I thought, if I were to put it in prose? I sighed. “What’s that about?” my therapist said. An image of a pane of broken glass in the middle of a meadow in Seven Springs flashed through my mind. No, prose wouldn’t work either. I answered, not meaning to sound cold, “I wouldn’t put it that way.”


Chris and I walked into Katie’s bookstore and tried to ratchet our faces into a humane muscular arrangement. It had been a terrible morning. Earlier, moments before I stepped up for my poetry reading at the local Episcopalian church, I checked my phone and saw, in sickening shock, that C., a poet and organizer from back in New York with whom I was friendly but not particularly close, had been killed by her male roommate the night before. In an article that morning the New York Post had identified C. as “a waitress struggling to pay the rent,” and her killer as a “struggling artist.” I read through posts from our mutual friends who had known her better than I had; one posted a picture of a plant that she had named after C. upon hearing the news; I thought I might cry, then found I couldn’t. A few brief sequences from the previous year played on loops through my head as I sat there staring at my phone: C. sitting down next to me at a reading where no one else would talk to me and striking up a conversation; dancing with her to a Robyn song in a crowded loft while snow fell outside near the Navy Yard; bumming a cigarette from her outside a bar, exchanging a grin, and walking home without knowing that this would be the last time I saw her. I showed Chris my phone and he gaped in disbelief, and I fell numb. I knew I had to say something about it to the small festival crowd assembled before me, and as I heard my name announced and I walked up to the pulpit, I felt my limbs fill with the soothing rage that presages disastrous public speech. But when I looked out over the pews I couldn’t do it—it would only have alienated the audience and made them feel terrible, and I was too angry to make my point. I thanked the festival for bringing me and forced my way through an excerpt of a long, autobiographical haibun called “A View of Vesuvius” while three people openly fell asleep in front of me. It was the worst reading I’ve ever given. When I finished a local senior poet smiled and told me that my poem was “very interesting” but that my reading voice was “too casual.” Chris hugged me as people milled around. No one else in Harbor Springs ever found out about what had happened the night before in Brooklyn. Back in the bookstore Katie leveled a patient smile in our direction from behind the register as we entered. She was nine months pregnant, nary a sign of strain on her face, though she was running a book festival and a store while on the verge of going into labor. I realized that despite the fact that we had once been close, I now knew very little about her life. She asked me how the reading went; I said it had been great. We told her about the car and what the mechanic had told us, and she chuckled and said, “Look at these jackasses rolling into town in a foreign car!” We all laughed, but it wasn’t clear for whom she’d made this joke. “No, but seriously, I’m so sorry—that’s terrible.” She offered to help us expedite a new catalytic converter from Detroit; her husband’s father was in the auto industry and could make a call for us if we wanted. Chris perked up. “That would be incredible,” he said. A flat expression passed over her face, and she began muttering that it might actually be too much trouble. We all stood there awkwardly for a moment, not quite understanding one another, but for me and Chris her meaning quickly crystallized: we had not followed the dance. Chris was supposed to say, “Thank you, that’s very kind, but we’ll find our way out of this.” We immediately backpedaled, practically falling over ourselves to assure her it would be no problem at all; we would wait to see what the mechanic said. She nodded gravely. I felt a pale root inside me choking under a thick, affable topsoil. Katie said we should come over for dinner that night—nothing fancy, but they would love to have us. We thanked her and said we would love that too. Chris and I walked back outside and stared over the lake. It had stopped raining. Katie’s dinner was delicious. In the end the catalytic converter arrived early. We ordered Jim and Laurie autumn tulips, bought several books from Katie at her store, and only missed two days of work.


“I thought of a way to title poems,” I said to Callie. “It’s called the Hell Test. It goes like this. If you’re writing in the present tense and you’re trying to find a title for a poem, you need to first ask yourself if the events in your poem might plausibly be able to fall under the title ‘Hell.’ If yes, there you go—you should call your poem ‘Hell.’ If no, you then need to ask yourself if there is another title for this particular poem that could plausibly serve better, or at least more troublingly, more ornately troublingly, as a title—something like ‘Night Smell’ or ‘The Thorn of the Night Smell.’ And if you can’t think of anything that good, you know what to do. Just call your poem ‘Hell.’” Callie looked up from her tablet and rubbed her eyes. “Would it work for novels too?” she said. “Yes, especially for novels,” I said. She looked out the window at the glowing red clock hands blazing through the night at the top of the bank tower, the tallest building in Brooklyn, then back at me. “What if you’re not writing in the present tense?”


The vacant stars are not enough, nor the gravity of one’s parents. The last time I went to Seven Springs I entered the meadow as I had for years, stuck by the low idling of the property, my blood rumbling among weaponized flowers. I wanted to see this one part of the field, the pane of glass installed over a chimney running into the ground. I walked up to peek in, but as I approached through the grass something seemed wrong. I believe in the reality of absent things; if something isn’t there I assume it must be somewhere else. The glass had cracked, and more than half the pane was gone. This is why we need poetry, because in the end no prose can absorb the shrillness of what I couldn’t see there. It was too dark below, so I walked around to a hatch, pulled it open, felt the damp air creep up, and, after some heavy hesitation, entered. I saw paw prints and little piles of scat at the foot of the latch. These I will not forget. I walked down the stairs. The air was damp and thick with a richer mineral than I could name. Moisture dripped from a small rusted tank. The back of my scalp tingled. This is about more than who owned the deed, but that was the worst part yet—I was under purchased earth, and everything was open. And while I knew that something even more awful was coming soon, I felt happy. I looked down at my feet. In the shadow six inches off lay a dead coyote. He was drenched and had entered from above. But this is not about the material he fell through. His eyes

were still cracked open
I stepped back, then stepped forward
and this is what he said

Daniel Poppick is the author of The Police and Fear of Description, a winner of the 2018 National Poetry Series competition. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, BOMB, Harper’s, The Drift, Poetry, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.
Originally published:
January 1, 2020


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