In Memory of My Father
There is nothing more terrible than having to face the objects of a dead man. They are there and yet not there: tangible ghosts, condemned to survive in a world they no longer belong to. What is one to think of a closet full of clothes waiting silently to be worn.
--Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude
On the night you were born
the calendar struck 'death'
across the month of April:
the Titanic, dipping its bow,
slipped unsinkably into the icy Atlantic.
The day you died,
I had just tried to call.
You were reaching for the phone.
fell onto the scuffed kitchen floor,
its crusty yellow,
your body splayed out,
defined within the squared patterns
of linoleum tile.
In that brief second, uncharted icebergs
appeared in the dark.
They blinded us with their luminosity.
They bound us to their submerged death.
There was still so much to talk about.
When the war ends
my grandfather's frost-white,
metal air raid warden's helmet is mine.
My toy rifle is harmless, a wooden silhouette.
On a shirtless summer night in Virginia
you conserve our ration of gasoline.
Under dim stars
the woolen fabric from the seat erupts
in a plaintive cry against my shoulders.
We drive to that point where the street rises,
crosses the railroad tracks.
We park, wait for the trains. In the distance
a single yellow beam slides along the rails,
then another, and another,
each following closer.
In the lit windows I see the standing soldiers.
No one sits.
We come here night after night
until the nightmare comes:
I see the poem taken from my picture book:
"Casey Jones" - the story of railroad men.
I see the picture where two trains rear up against each other
like quarreling giants, their sides split open.
I see soldiers spilling out, rolling down the hill
like Casey's fireman.
I see this until I believe the tracks run directly behind my house.
and I believe the trains are monsters.
Until I learn that night is unsafe.
When we're old enough
you drive the Packard through the summer's blistering air,
the convertible top forced down into its crib,
the unworkable hydraulic windows like glass partitions.
We cross Hampton through Fox Hill to Grandview.
From that gravelly, clam-bake beach
we wade tentatively into the cold Chesapeake,
your mother in her long woolen bathing suit.
Back ashore, at your brother's beach house
the anemometer purrs a storm warning
in the windowsill. Bobwhites
offer their unmistakable calls tree-to-tree.
Last week the car was cold as the bay's water.
When you pulled the choke and turned the starter,
there was a sullen grinding before it leapt forward,
the clockwork flywheel's missing teeth telling the tale.
At Cutchen's Garage the replacement sits
beside its smoke and acetylene harvester,
lifted from the rickets of junked autos.
You allow me to ride the rack to the top,
sit there above the years of pin-up calendars
nailed to the back of every door,
spackled with grimy fingerprints.
I wait there suspended in the expectant air
for the grease-covered mechanic to compete his work.
Today we purr along.
We sing to the water.
Last winter, in one of those rare March snows,
you pulled me behind that same Packard
tethered to your boyhood, wooden-runnered sled.
I lay there half-frozen, the ice biting my lips
while the cold raced through the woolen scarf.
I jostled along out of control, mittens wet,
scuffing the slush, gouging furrows
with the buckles of my galoshes.
You drove us down Brandon Road to Westover.
At the bottom of the hill the car skidded sideways
and slung me forward. For a terrifying moment
I floated ahead of the rear wheel on sheer ice,
then slowly the tires gathered their grip, spun safely,
and pulled ahead. When we finally stopped at his house,
your younger brother had brushed clean snow
from the tops of hedges
for us to eat, flavored it with vanilla syrup.
Weighing out your bread loaves
On the kitchen scales,
Our mother scolds us for eating cookies
Or we will get your disease.
Sugar, that doleful sweetness,
Plays first chair
In the orchestra of our childhoods.
That ceaseless argument - "sugar, sugar" -
Leaves us as glazed as honey buns,
Sopping up after bees to extract, forbidden,
Their enticing treat.
Safety is always too ephemeral,
Your sublime comas, unexpected,
Dance through our waking sleep,
A drowse as vigilant as spiders.
When I am older I will accompany you to the ophthalmologist. Observing carefully, the landscape of the eye will resemble a map. Its rivers will converge at its center. After a lifetime of diabetes, your nerves have gone dead, now the sight. This blindness comes when the eye's rivers grow wild. They erupt in clouds of blood that drift over the surface. ThenĀ the ground separates, as if torn by an earthquake. Lasers focus on the areas where your retina is torn or bleeding, making a thousand to fifteen hundred burns on the field of sight. Watching through the surgeon's microscope, I am the novice bombardier's apprentice surveying the eye's terrain as green lights pommel its riverbanks, tortuous, overflowing. There is silence. Pain. White craters signal the pattern of our bombs.
In mid-June we catch the fever, the urge
to sail your clumsy catboat. Overturned all winter,
she is as afraid to swim as some hibernating bear.
Her mooring lines lie coiled underneath,
badly crimped. Sharp barnacles, bleached white as chalk,
are as large as knuckles on her keel
From a single season in the salt. They flake away
under our stiff, iron-bristled brushes and broad blades.
You and I probe with chisels for her open seams.
They grudgingly take the lathered strings of caulk,
one at a time, until the loose-wicked rope
balks and wedges tightly between each plank and beam.
A last coat of lead paint dries. Anchored in the tide,
the wooden bottom slowly swells, seals off.
Watertight now, we bail her dry, stow our gear,
For three summers I cross the James with Georgeanne, with Stephanie
on a flimsy sailfish, its silvered mast rising
above the deck, scarcely visible ashore
over the Earth's curve. We tack
toward the Isle of Wight County's
abandoned lighthouse, looping our bow rope
over its ladder's lowest rung. Poised there on stilts,
brackish water eddying between her stiff legs,
rust consumes everything in sight.
Inside - barefoot - we have to fairly tiptoe
among the shards of glass and seagull droppings.
From that vantage point I can see upriver toward Jamestown.
In between, the grain-holed fleet - retired freighters -
sits in mothballs just beyond our view.
Climbing up, peering through the prismed lens,
I still catch a glimpse of our home,
hardly a speck, appearing and disappearing
between the passing swells.
Each re-crossing we clear the numbered channel markings.
Oddly raked, red-and white, the buoys rock and tumble about.
At night their fog bells, carried across the water,
break the barriers of our sound.
THE CARE AND FEEDING OF FISH
You sit by my convalescent bedside,
my bright concussion a dimple in the bone around my eye
swollen to the size of the baseball
I failed to capture with my glove.
For two days I eat only ice chips on doctor's orders.
Beside my mattress is my menagerie of adolescence.
The mantis catches your attention first,
praying on her shard of curled bark,
etherized in that moment the frothy eggs spumed out.
The medication leaves me as anesthetized
As that conjucidal insect.
Between us there is a new miracle of patience.
In the window we watch the two gouramis swim languorously
toward each other,
kiss in their algae-skinned aquarium, then swim apart.
You press an ice pack against my cheek. It is quiet.
What can we say to each other - son to father, father to son?
I have hidden the summer issue of Holiday beneath my pillow.
When you leave, I open it
to the olive woman waiting, lifting herself on a pedestal
framed by the Aegean's two blues.
Her undressed body arches upward,
a tide of ripples as strong as a riptide run up the curve of her spine,
her slender, un-braceletted arms tanned to perfection.
I think of her as something amphibious,
a glistening trove brought home from the sea,
her eyes look back at the water out of which she rose.
Her body seemed to say to me:
I am expecting a lover any moment.
In the haze of light above the dazzling magazine
I can see The Care and Feeding of Fish,
bulky and unconcerned,angling obliquely against the gouramis' green glass.
I think how while you're at work
I watch couples on the beach through your telescope.
Between us, everything sexual is concealed, unspoken.
Years later, when I will have joined you
for a college summer's work at "the Yard,"
when I will have arrived
among those bold articulations of curved metal plates
sculpted into submarines and carriers,
I try to press you into me, make some part of you a part of me,
something I can take from those ubiquitous keels laid and launched.
I was there earlier when you set sail on the sea trials
for America's Blue Ribbon Atlantic liner.
Together we watched the Forrestal launched,
the Navy's Blue Angels
saluting overhead with plumes of colored smoke.
But my own brief work there
would always be prosaic: a sign artist.
At the end of the summer, the eight feet of green glass
that would separate me from the reactor core
I painstakingly stenciled with Warnings for posterity
would feel as thick and dispiriting as our unplanned isolation.
I keep discovering words I have written and can't touch.
Your signature is bold and unmistakable.
My own - scrawled surreptitiously out of view
on the underside of the catwalk
above the bilge - is lost.
Years later I would set sail on a sister ship-of-the-line
and ply with record speed across the northern ocean
to Germany while I wrote tissue-thin letters back and forth
to Patty in Afghanistan.
Coming back we would shatter even our own accomplishments.
Nothing, in that fleeting time, really eluded me.
I stepped into your footsteps as though they were slippers.
How could we expect something other?
Your cars and clothes handed down.
When you die I will find one herringboned sport coat
in your closet that I can wear, and keep
despite the way it shrugs over my shoulders.
By then nothing will work: the heart, the kidneys, the eyes--
the failed metonyms for a body
as pitiful as the old cars junked in the drive.
This was your penchant for bargains,
an old Austin Healy, the Renault,
your brother's discarded Cadillacs.
What gave in to you was life, your stubbornness,
the undemanding ebullience
that never forfeited to the illness any small pleasure.
Only that one night,
when I came home to tell you she had died,
when you fell on your knees beside the bed
and wept that you had wanted to die first.
I never told you how my mother had looked up at me
in pain from her pillow
and said: Let me die,
how I sent you home to sleep
before you collapsed,
then sat through those last comatose hours
with my brothers and sister in the chromed waiting room.
With you are at the wheel,
Peninsula Memorial Cemetery's granite bread loaves
roll out from beneath the shadow
of our used, steel-blue Cadillac,
a day-old sale at the bakery.
Grandpa was a Trustee here.
Now he sets foot patiently into the ground,
a kind of in perpetuum meeting of the Board.
Steam murders the summer air,
rising furnace-like from the hot asphalt
after five minutes' sun-splattered rain;
there is no part of this field you don't know.
Though making a good twenty thousand
you wear ill-fitting hand-me-downs
from someone here,
and send me packing off to school
with a borrowed steamer trunk from someone else.
My grandfather cleared this land,
but you attend all the openings.
When I was a child
our telephone number was one exchange different
from the caretaker's:
people called all hours in their grief.
Now I memorize their mistake,
my finger brushes over the old-numbered circle
and practices resting uncomfortably
in the neighboring digit.
Remember when I was young,
the winter old Dora threw your the one false tooth,
wrapped in Kleenex and placed on the mantel,
into the fire. Since then, so often our lives
have been wrapped carelessly in tissue,
have flamed quickly into to ash.
Returning home in the car, I tell you
something offhand, an aside, something
to disentangle our thoughts.
I relate how a Mexican priest I met
in New Orleans hawked wooden flowers,
their shaved curlicues shaped into violets,
irises, and wood roses. I had brought
back three or four, and a watercolor
of a jazz ensemble. It is raining.
At the church the flowers
arranged on my mother's casket
had been fresh. Alive. They are spoiled now
like rain-wet newspaper. Unreadable.
Riding by, I see how they have torn away the town,
the Coca-Cola plant is gone, the old hospital,
mother's high school. What survives us?
I can think only of last night, the woman
at the funeral home, standing there,
looking into the coffin, saying:
"There must be some mistake.
This is not the face. This is not the face."
THE HISTORY OF PAINTING
Two paintings are all that remain of your own,
your imagined lifetime of art, reduced
in the end to so little. You installed your first son
like a flower, forced indoors to bloom
into a prodigy. Barely seven, I was gathering
my brushes, my rectified turpentine, two
canvasses tucked underarm, covering
them with rare earth pigments and linseed oils.
They were perfect exercises, flattering
copies of masterworks from art books, folios
stacked in a corner among plaster casts,
palettes and easels, filling the cramped studio.
A few times I think your life gathered too much dust.
What replaced what? Was there some redemption
in living through your children's lives to outlast
your own dreams? Is that unfair? How often is a son
an artifice born of our own making.
I lean back and stare silently at this one
painting. I think how you arranged the lighting
from the north, took out the photograph
of your grandson, the curled tube of blue, scrubbing
it into the background. Then the face, laughing,
toned down. This portrait, your grandson's face
looking back at me, never finished, was half
completed to return to later: tracings
done hurriedly of a mouth, a nose, brows,
eyes with their white glint of reflected grace.
So much is here, the ochre chalk outline, even now,
I can smear with my finger. The boy's grown,
his painting becomes our shared figuration -- his is our safe ground.
YOUR ONLY SHINY THING
THE LIZARD IN THE WASHING MACHINES
MORE LIGHT THAN WE CAN HOLD