The M at the End of the Earth

Lights ripple on a highway glazed with rain.
The night turns silver, trucks slip by, cars rustle— 
all heading south, into the land of M.
A boot-heel clicks on the concrete outside.             
There are cowboys playing cards next door,
their bids are like cries in the motel’s thin wall. 
Rain was scouring down, night falling— 
it was here or there, the rest-stop where this afternoon, 
under the dark ponderosas, a young man in shorts 
came swinging past on crutches, 
calling to a friend, his right knee withered 
and dangling free as he lurched up to the car. 
A fresh amputation—Iraq, I guessed. 
And in the phone and info booth, a tall black woman
trying to make a call, speaking to the operator,
though her eye-line’s as to me, asking, Do you speak English
so that I reply, loudly, Yes, I do. She smiles back at me, 
pointing to the receiver. Five minutes later, 
the phone was ringing. Couldn’t see her, so I picked it up—
a man’s voice on the other end, Delia? Delia? Is that you, 
Delia?…when I tell him I can’t find her, can’t see her,
that she’s gone, You know her? Who are you, 
whats your name? You tell her, man, tell her, please, 
say Curtis says you gotta turn around. 
                                                     This on I-40,
west of Flagstaff. That was when I turned around. 
I figured my life on the map and saw I wouldn’t make it back, 
that I’d never make the mountain any other way.


Our first afternoon in Auckland—remember this, babe?—
a mynah bird in Miranda’s garden. 
Then on K Road, waylaid by rain, we ducked into 
McDonald’s—strange refuge, we’d never been before.
An order of fries for Nina, 
after her night in Garuda’s belly.
queued for burgers and shakes—it was their land—       
and then it was birdland, 
as though in this last place in the world, 
the world had turned upside down for us, 
to find us with this simple cup of joy—sparrows
pecking at crumbs on the floor, and swooping from 
their perch in the rafters, to feed on the morsels
our fingers held in offering.


                                So the night turns silver—
after the rain, a full moon rising over Arizona.
The night makes shapes, an alphabet swoops and…
and it’s this I want to say—it’s as they arrive in Dante, 
on wings of light, volitando cantavano the poet says, 
the saints in the realm of Jupiter revolving
in a swell of song, spelling out words in stars 
and rhinestone spangles
                                  as though it were Vegas, 
and a laser show and showers of neon 
shaking the tree of Paradise.
the rolling open hills of this afternoon’s highway
there was good reception on NPR, 
Manfred Mann’s Mighty Quinn—feeding the pigeons on a limb
and then the mysteries of Texan archaeology. 
Listen up: there are artifacts 
in strata older than Clovis. 
No-one knows where they came from.
Out of the willowy light of the moon? Or boats— 
from east or west?—both are possible. 
                                             Who really cares? 
Here in the motel’s front-room, stashed with off-season junk,  
there’s an old world map, America-centred, of course,
so that Russia, the old USSR, is cut plumb in two. 
Out on the wings of the world, as it were…and that’s all 
you know or need to know on earth—
that the US is as it says, us and them, them or us,

and the way of its way in the world

hangs on a motel wall.                               


                                Five days ago,
in downtown LA, walking beneath a narrow sky, 
the sun caught up in the towers above me, 
a few beams glancing down, into the shadows 
where I’m following a sidewalk talker—
she could be Maasai—graceful and tall,
polished obsidian skin, a black hood pulled over her head, 
she raps out her syllabics to the world, chanting her oracles:
fast, but you is overspent, coolbreeze was my friend today 
hey! hey! cup— hey, cup, hey!— the hawk is talking speed to me—                                       
she doesn’t stop for the Don’t Walk signs, 
so that we follow like disciples, we the people, jaywalking 
in her wake, into the traffic, and all its horns sounding.


And on to Seventh and Figueroa, she leads me
to a bus-stop—where it’s one dollar fish Friday
at the McDonald’s and
            —take me back to K Road, babe— 
a pigeon’s perched on the puffed-up golden M, 
preening its feathers, a glimpse of 
iridescence in the sign’s slow neon.
It surveys the sidewalks where she’s long gone, 
the sidewalk talker, into the sibilance 
of crowds and passing cars;
it overlooks the jewelry store next door        
where two lovers laugh: a sharp-suited man, 
a woman with a blue flickering stone. 
The pigeon sees it all, then tucks its head under a wing—
it turns from those who stream out of the McDonald’s,
under the golden arches, fingers clasped on 
big macs and shakes and filet o’ fish,
while two ragged beggars—this really seen
in downtown LA—a Latina mother and child—
hold a broken cup at the door.


                        And the text falls 
from heaven              the returning words 
I wanted to say—how Dante has the saints in Paradise
chanting their creed in lights, which
dance their message to us—   
                                      Diligite iustitiam
qui iudicatis terram 
                         their voices sing
—Love justice, you who judge the earth— 
      and as the spell spells itself out
the M of terram— 
the M at the end of the earth 
the M that lives in cheeks and brow and nose
that with the eyes as Ohs
spells a word in every human face— 
/oVo\ (omo) man, the legend of Omo Dei
the M that is Mortality
the M that says 
                         we are only human—

dissolves like a film-cut…
into a fleur-de-lys 
and again into an eagle’s crest and wings

and the eagle takes flight in a violet sky
where its shadow glides out 
and over 
the empire of M.



That was two days ago. 
Today in San Pedro, 
at the northern end of Jornada del Muerto 
close to Trinity,
a bald eagle circling the water meadows.

It was not the M I wanted to see,
but the message on the gate
told me I was a day too late
for the once a year visit to Ground Zero

where I would have to drive for miles
down a dirt road
through Homeland Security scrub and watchful eyes…

I was happy enough to miss that trip
to the filled-in splashy star crater lake
and on from there the two miles south
to the McDonalds’ ranch

          (no relation, I guess—
          George McDonald and family 
          were evicted from their ‘marginal land’ in 1942)

where, in a spacious north-facing room,
in those final few days,
Slotin assembled the plutonium trigger—
with jeeps running outside
in case of a hasty getaway—

and later, after the test,
Oppenheimer uttered his infamous words
(quoting from the Bhagavad Gita)

          I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds

and Dr Kenneth Bainbridge, 
the Director of Trinity declared—

               Now we’re all sons of bitches

Cliff Fell lives in the Nelson region, where he teaches in the School of Arts and Media at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology. His first book of poems was The Adulterer’s Bible, (Victoria University Press, 2003). A second collection, Beauty of the Badlands, is due from VUP in 2008.

Fell comments: ‘ “The M at the End of the Earth” is largely based on notes made while travelling through the US southwest in September and October of 2004, on a trip funded by a Creative New Zealand grant. However, the title of the poem and the key motif the poem is moving towards, are derived from Dante – from Paradiso XVIII, 88-108. The poem also references an image from Purgatorio XXIII, 31-33.

An early draft was written in 2005 for inclusion in Otago University lecturer Roel Wijland’s Doctoral thesis Poetic Brandscapes – an episodic representation of the beauty and ugliness of contemporary brands as imagined by 13 New Zealand poets. The version here is an expanded version which was published by Elsewhere Press in 2007 in Hotspot, an artists’ book to accompany a joint and collaborative exhibition of paintings, text and video work by Kate WalkerJennifer Beth Guerin and the author, which was held at the Suter Gallery in Nelson in August, 2007.’

Poem source details >



Victoria University Press author page
New Zealand Book Council writer file
New Zealand Electronic Text Centre: online work