Le petit lui.
Bob Hicok (1960) is a poet from Michigan who writes accessible and meditative poetry. He currently teaches creative writing at Purdue University.
My father’s head has become a mystery to him.
We finally have something in common.
When he moves his head his eyes
get big as roses filled
with the commotion of spring.
Not long ago he was a man
who had tomato soup for lunch
and dusted with the earnestness
of a gun fight. Now he’s a man
who sits at the table trying to breathe
in tiny bites. When they told him
his spinal column is closing, I thought
of all the branches he’s cut
with loppers and piled and burned
in the fall, the pinch of the blades
on the green and vital pulp. Surgeons
can fuse vertebrae, a welders art,
and scrape the ring through which
the soul-wires flow as a dentist
would clean your teeth.
And still it could happen, one turn
of his head toward a hummingbird,
wings keeping that brittle life
afloat, working hard against the fall,
and he might freeze in that pose
of astonishment, a man estranged
from the neck down, who can only share
with his body the silence
he’s pawned on his children as love.
I like this kind of poems that paint a world with a precise and prosaic description of a life and its discomfort, to redeem it with considerable verbal magic (share with his body the silence / he’s pawned on his children as love).
The metaphorical unity of the once strong father who cut through the green and vital pulp, and the weak old man who is estranged from the neck down, is an obvious device and some may call it boring. The nerves are called soul-wires and they are now cut off. Life has become mysterious to him – is that what the son calls ‘something in common’?
I think so. The father has learned astonishment at the hummingbird-like fragility of life. He has learned about love.
Or: Silence can give you enough cash in the pawn shop of love.
Martín Espada (b. ) is an American poet, critic and attorney with Puerto Rican roots. His most important influence was his father, a community organizer and social justice activist. Poetry for him is giving a voice to the voiceless. I read a hommage to his father.
The Sign in My Father’s Hands
—for Frank Espada
The beer company
did not hire Blacks or Puerto Ricans,
so my father joined the picket line
at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion, New York World’s Fair,
amid the crowds glaring with canine hostility.
But the cops brandished nightsticks
and handcuffs to protect the beer,
and my father disappeared.
In 1964, I had never tasted beer,
and no one told me about the picket signs
torn in two by the cops of brewery.
I knew what dead was: dead was a cat
overrun with parasites and dumped
in the hallway incinerator.
I knew my father was dead.
I went mute and filmy-eyed, the slow boy
who did not hear the question in school.
I sat studying his framed photograph
like a mirror, my darker face.
Days later, he appeared in the doorway
grinning with his gilded tooth.
Not dead, though I would come to learn
that sometimes Puerto Ricans die
in jail, with bruises no one can explain
swelling their eyes shut.
I would learn too that “boycott”
is not a boy’s haircut,
that I could sketch a picket line
on the blank side of a leaflet.
That day my father returned
from the netherworld
easily as riding the elevator to apartment 14-F,
and the brewery cops could only watch
in drunken disappointment.
I searched my father’s hands
for a sign of the miracle.
The opening lines read like a newspaper article, until the cops start beating up Frank with their nightstickes ‘to protect the beer / and my father disappeared’. The subtle rhyme opens up the poetic dimension.
The boy mourned his father’s death, not knowing that he was still alive. It was 1964. The Jim Crow laws of racial segragation were abolished on 2 July 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson historically signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
When the father reappears ‘days later’ (three days would have been kitsch) the boy begins to learn. He loses his endearing naivity (a boycott as a boy’s haircut – I have believed similar things when I was young, but never saw my father disappear like that).
The cops have turned into drunken thugs, disappointed about the freedom of the activist. And Martín searches his father’s hands for the sign of the miracle. I don’t know what to make of this. I don’t think there is a Christian connotation. The hands are just an activist’s hands. Maybe the miracle is what we can accomplish if we join hands.
Reading: The Sign in My Father’s Hands by Martín Espada was originally published on Meandering home
Li-Young Lee (b. 1957) is a American poet born to Chinese exiles. His father, who plays an important role in his poetry, was the personal physician to Mao Zedong. His poetry has been compared to John Keats, Rilke and Roethke and he was influenced by old Chinese poems like Tu Fu, which shows in his economic use of language. I read a short but very powerful poem about:
In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like a snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.
The precise description of the trout the family will have for lunch so I can almost smell it is a great (and common) poetic device. We see the mother taking the sweetest meat of the head, thereby replacing the role of the father who has been gone for weeks. At this point, the reader realizes his passing and the beautiful ‘Chinese’ last sentence of the poem confirms this.
I picked this poem because I think the image of the snow-covered winding road through an old forest, that is lonely for no one is magical. I like the simplicity of such poetic diction, realizing that it is always at risk of turning into kitsch. But I also know that kitsch requires travelers and interpreters who repeat a phrase until it wears out. In the absence of travelers, in the domain of this poem, it is not only tolerable, but extremely powerful.
Louise Glück (b. 1943) is an American poet born in New York. Numerous awards, appointed Poet Laureate in 2003. Her poetry is neither confessional nor intellectual and considered among the purest writing in English poetry today. Her subject matter is often desolate and depressing, yet poetically brilliant. I read a short little piece of wisdom that made me go ‘hell yeah’ today:
Long ago, I was wounded. I lived
to revenge myself
against my father, not
for what he was–
for what I was: from the beginning of time,
in childhood, I thought
that pain meant
I was not loved.
It meant I loved.
What is it with all these fathers? Why is their voice so important? What does it mean, the Voice of the Father in our times when the ‘big Father’ in the sky has fewer takers every day? She writes ‘revenge’, this is not the desire to ‘prove’ yourself to the father that is so effective in manufacturing an obeying populas, as Hollywood knows.
Revenge it is, but out of self-loathing, not out of hatred for someone else. I subscribe to this psychological insight, it is something we all have to come to terms with, I mean all of us who had an authoritarian character, a ‘head of the household’ as a father who may or may not have ‘done things’.
It meant I loved. Wooha! This poem is extreme ellipsis, so it fits for everybody. Some reader might see the father beating her, an other simply a man who was always absent. All readers are supposed to be confronted with their own love. I like that.
Britain’s leading theater and television poet is Tony Harrison (b. 1937), who is celebrated of the twentieth century’s true working class poet. He is a translator, director, playwright who says that all is implied in the job description: poet. I read ‘Turn’ about his passed father, where the class consciousness becomes visible:
I thought it made me look more ‘working class’
(as if a bit of chequered cloth could bridge that gap!)
I did a turn in it before the glass.
My mother said: It suits you, your dad’s cap.
(She preferred me to wear suits and part my hair:
You’re every bit as good as that lot are!)
All the pension queue came out to stare.
Dad was sprawled beside the postbox (still VR) ,
his cap turned inside up beside his head,
smudged H A H in purple Indian ink
and Brylcreem slicks displayed so folks migh think
he wanted charity for dropping dead.
He never begged. For nowt! Death’s reticence
crowns his life, and me, I’m opening my trap
to busk the class that broke him for the pence
that splash like brackish tears into our cap.
The last lines of this sonnet are powerful, integrating vulgar (lower class) English with a clear sense of metre, confident rhyme and rhythm, and a classical sounding finish. ‘Trap’ means mouth and ‘nowt’ means ‘to no degree’. The worthy silence rounded the life of Harrison père. His son became an acclaimed man of latters, but describes himself as a busker and beggar to the upper class.
A VR postbox refers to Queen Victoria (postbox put up between 1853-1901). So there dad lied, his initials on the inside of his cap, Brylcreem slicks (magazines?) on display, that make folks think he wanted some donation, like someone put AdSense on his funeral page (perhaps my interpretation is too ‘modern’).
So, he did a turn to look if the working class cap suited him. In life, he made a turn away from the working class, he made use of the upward mobility like many of his generation. This turn made him more conscious of what it means to be working class. The turn is a nicely chosen metaphor here.
A dense poem that manages to play with and bridge that gap between ‘classes’. Impressive. I will practice some reticence before I open my trap.
A father can call the deepest motivation of his child
the tentative and most fragile design of his heart
morally reprehensible. So he summons the energy
that will self-destroy his child.
There are two types of religion
In one, there is a Father and He shall forgive you
In the other, you shall forgive the Father
Our religious energy flows between two generations
in either direction.
We must live free from the filthy desire for redemption.