Austin Segrest

The Tunnel

In the future he will go back in his mind to that thick and woody forest. Move a child when he’s young and you damage him. Now he has to look at the world from a new place. The old place and the new place clash. A war starts. And that war may be worse than unhappiness, because in the future, going back to all this upheaval, he won’t be able to track down his childhood.
–Natalia Ginzburg

…who could divert within him the deluge of origin?

The tunnel
was corrugated metal.
It carried the creek
under a street
and poured
down a small gorge.
So you had to grip
its wrinkled rusty lip
and climb in from the side.
It was a full stride
between ribs—the only way
to keep your shoes half dry.
And if you stood
as far to one side as you could,
you could lean back
in the dark, Jonah-like,
into the curve of a rib
arching over your head
than a tractor tire.
Too deep to hear cars
dip and rise.
There was a dull metallic smell
and your yell
echoed asking the hill,
before they put tubes in your ears
was there a waterfall here?
You could see the humps
where the black water jumped
the ribs, and leaves clumped.
Older, you could run the ribs,
a cannon’s rifled grooves.
Far down, it was green
where the creek came in.
Where it spilled out, the ground
stepped down and down
in sheets and pools,
wide and walled.
When you came out, the world
was only one side,
like popping one ear
but not the other,
deaf in one ear
like your father,
who first brought you here.


Where did he go


And did you follow


Your mom’s so thin


Don’t say you were abandoned


A troll lives under the road

                         under there owed

He keeps the balance


Stray light the jewels the water hoards

                         utter words


The ears have wonders
lovely to say,
a lovely array
of vestibules and stairs.
The cochlea with vibrating hairs
looks like a cinnamon bun.
The eardrum
is a dished-in contact lens.
Delicate mechanisms:
the little bones and panes,
translucent membranes
pulverized when your father
fell out of that car.


Zoned a bird
sanctuary on the deed,
bought for a song, for a lark,
the ravine was a Romantic
rec room and sounding board
for his socially awkward
redneck liberalism
and reckless enthusiasm
for the unreckoned
reaches of what could
only be called the sublime,
or humongrous—slung out the side
of his mouth, out the suicide
door to his good ear,
reflecting back on himself—
a boy scaring himself
and building himself
up with facts. The steep walls rang
with his nasally twang,
a tuneless appassionata
that fostered in you not a
love of wildness
so much as place:
nature marred
by the tunnel’s scar,
a human shape
on the landscape.
Seasoned like a skillet
with upcountry ore,
alive the way only a child
could fill it with a will,
ingrown and overgrown
with all the dragons and trolls
of elementary school,
always the lions’ den.
From the other end,
your brother’s voice reached you,
cranked up Archimedes’ screw,
your father looking through
a telescope or a microscope
in his lab.
The water’s slippery syllabary
echoed darkly.
As if the bookmobile’s
laminated walls,
its inscrutable tongues
were speaking all at once.
As if you were lodged
in its fuselage
that took your mother in.
Like faith, it opened
the ears and shut the eyes.


An opening to equalize:
that’s the office
of the Eustachian tubes,
often faulty
in anorexics and babies.
When yours were shut
they made a shunt.
Hers were “laid open”
to her body’s commotion.
Apparently fat
turns the valve, and when that
fat too got used,
she thought her eardrums burst.
She had a direct line
that couldn’t be turned down
or disconnected,
a waterfall in her head
that pushed her in the end
to check herself in.
The self-inflicted
noise torture
more than she bargained for,
her breath and voice a seashell
roar, her heart’s fatigued rebuttal,
the eardrums circumvented
(yours pierced and fitted
with tubes), the little bones
rattling the panes,
little levers
registering on the hairs’
labyrinthine coil
the nerve rides like a record needle.


While you went gamboling down
the ivy slope behind
your father, down
the cross-tie steps
behind the house
leading to the woods,
your mother at the window, what
did she see but the desert
of desire?
The forsaking of her
career as editor
a forgone conclusion,
her curbed ambition
fell on him like a hawk:
he was making a grave mistake
to rest on his research
without taking advantage.
Talent was never enough:
he had to promote himself,
meet the world on its terms,
shake hands, remember names,
go to parties, tell a joke.
He had to plan his attack,
play his hand, put in his bid.
Of course, he never would.
Of course, it was beside
the point. His exotic red
British sportster was
originally hers.
Back in D.C.
it was burgundy.
Dissatisfaction dogged
your heels at every log.
You took after his
and the house hovered,
holding your mother
back on the limestone shelf,
holding her life
over your head.


Ripped from his grandfather’s Lincoln
like a preamble to your C-section,
wrecked solitary
in this sanctuary,
why should your father,
who would rather
do research be
that which he
was robbed of?
Before he was five
he was taken from his grandparents,
his father dead, his inheritance
not a single memory.
His mother off to remarry.
The silver dollar
from his grandfather,
the dive mask
the waves took—
why should he intercept
you from the same theft?
You were conceived in a tube:
father lab and mother womb.
Your laces browned, your feet went numb.
Your father went
along with it.
Your raven-fed
mother conducted
the experiment.
The fallen mayfly,
quivering its day-
long last, has, it turns out,
two heads, facing opposite,
tail joined anonymously to tail
to form a kind of tunnel
ribbed with the segments
of their abdomens.


Like Cahaba lichen
or some endemic wren
or salamander
(said to live in fire)—
a species unique
to this stretch of creek,
this banked, shaded well
air-conditioned by a tunnel,
this overlooked acre
of water din and water-
laminated rock,
low-lit and slick—
you grew attuned
to your mother’s moods,
a microclimate
your insulated father hardly felt,
not that any of it was meant
for him, save contempt
and cold respect for a mind
he withdrew behind.


There was a stack of rocks
and a stack of hardbacks,
a table rock and bedside table—
both escapes. Inescapable,
the province of the biochemical,
the intricate runs and bends
of mystery and romance,
the layers and tension
of nature’s invention.
A few years kept
preoccupied by the prospect
that passion, being alive
out there somewhere, would arrive,—
or comets and quasars,
if not a mission to Mars,
the unlikely but still
possible paw print or ivory bill.
It read for the plain
fiction it was just as soon
as you could read it
and drove a lonely secret
impulse deep into the heart
of the woods,
of words.

While your father regaled you,
his hands flung and flailed through
his wild surmises
with vigor and violence,
as if he were conducting
Schubert or Beethoven—
a rude, erratic reach,
which, off Ponte Vedra beach,
saved your too frail
mother in the heavy swell,
her swimsuit embroidered
with a white anchor.


This place we find ourselves
is really only fit for wolves,
or the unwitting errors
of ancestors.
The search is fruitless
when you’re rootless,
when the door opens
into the wind.
Pour the emptiness a round.
Ravines are ravenous for sound.


If the tunnel keeps a record

                         a wreck heard

An ear cupped to hear a long ago


To and fro in the helical dark


Reeling and raving


A dove will return bearing


From its beak


An olive’s silvery leaf



Nineveh or Tarshish
from inside the great fish
there was no way of knowing
where Jonah was going.
Nothing but darkness,
echoes and groans.
How could God hear
his muffled prayer?
How could he win
entrance in
to God’s good ear
from in there?
All was awash
in the ringing rush.
Tunnel or whale:
a crucible.
Yet what spit him out
but mercy’s spout?
What brought him back
but mercy’s tack?
Gullet to gully,
mercy, mercy, mercy.

Author’s Note

I started “The Tunnel” at a ski lodge in central Wisconsin. Rib Mountain, I think. I didn’t ski, or intend to. My friends and I were (and are) professors at Lawrence University, south and east of Rib, in Appleton, WI. It was spring break 2016; I was 36. I’d been at Lawrence with my partner (a fellow English prof/poet) since 2014. She was out of town, and though the thought of skiing in Wisconsin was depressing, I liked the idea of hanging out in a fancy cabin, writing by the fireplace while others skied. I didn’t sleep much the night after arriving and rose late to an empty chalet. The rest of the morning and afternoon I worked through a pot of coffee and most of the first section of “The Tunnel.”

The (at the time) remarkably pristine and lush suburban creek and ravine behind the first house I was raised in, in the wooded ridges south of Birmingham, Alabama, led eventually to the Cahaba River, one of the most ecologically diverse rivers in the world. The drop-off behind the house loomed so large in my imagination I’d long given up on writing about it; it sat there at the bottom of my mind like a giant, unnamed magnet ordering everything around it. But it was the tunnel, on the periphery of the ravine, that drew me in as the heavy-wet April snow melted outside. I was amazed how vivid the sensations of exploring the tunnel still were, how taken for granted. It was immersive.

While I tend to steer clear of rhetoric that dumps recounted experience on a vague “you,” I occasionally like to talk to myself in the second-person perspective. But I suspect this poem’s “you” began in honest informality, in an attempt to relate what the tunnel felt like: “when you went it…”

Though I rarely start out writing in form, the rhyme’s echo guided me pretty much from the start, as I remember. I first got onto sneaky couplets back in 2007 during my MFA, in an extensive edit on a poem where I must have had the form of Browning’s “My Last Duchess” in mind. Later, during my PhD, I used Skeltonic couplets in another family poem, which also features a tunnel under a road. Poor couplets! After centuries of indispensability, it’s hard to imagine a technique more out of fashion. Your loss, poetry.

That evening I emailed a draft of the first section to my siblings, my twin sister and slightly older brother. As if I were mailing them old family photos. I knew I was onto something. So, typically, I tried to wrap it up, but couldn’t find an ending from that image of Dad’s deaf ear. Not for lack of trying, or fooling myself. In the process, a lot of the Dad material came out, saved in version after version on my laptop. Then, months later, I wrote what I realized was the ending, the Jonah section (which I only now realize switches to third-person).

Then it was a matter of getting there. It took nearly two years, writing in spurts, some months working every day, and some of those days getting only a good couplet or two; grabbing a new section in the car on a road trip to Wisconsin’s Driftless region, or looking at riverflies mate on a deck outside my apartment on the Fox River.

A rare instance of intentionally expressive form, which I instantly regretted thinking of, the echo sections are, of course, all George Herbert (I’d done an NEH seminar on him and Dickinson at U. Chicago the summer of 2014). They took separate eternities to write, the second one avoided as long as I could, until my friend said what I already knew, that there should probably be another; it was one of the last touches, and he coached me through several versions.

I’ve tended to be ambivalent about long poems. This has to do with how extensively I revise. I’m always thinking I’m writing a long poem (finally!), only to end up cutting or condensing most of it, or ending up somewhere else entirely. Naturally, I kept waiting for this to happen with “The Tunnel.” That it didn’t, that I got to keep building, was a breakthrough in itself, due, in part, to the durability of rhyme. It was exhilarating, a long adventure into the interior I’m in some ways still building off, in which those first, lost symbols were recaptured, doubling down on the visionary, on personal myth and narrative and rhyme, everything I wasn’t supposed to.

It was my first successful poem extensively about both parents, the tunnel insisting, through the imagery of ears, on connecting those antithetically opposed sides. As such, it’s become the centerpiece of my manuscript, connecting parents and selves.

Originally from Alabama, Austin Segrest teaches poetry at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. Last year he was a FAWC poetry fellow in Provincetown. His poems appear widely, most recently in POETRY and Blackbird.