“It doesn’t matter who my father was, it matters who I remember he was.” ~ Anne Sexton, from a journal entry, 1972

Life was never like Andy of Mayberry

Two for Tuesday: Poems about Fathers

Tuesday afternoon, sunny and warmer, 43 degrees.

The two poems that I’ve chosen for today are both about communicating with fathers. The first, by W. S. Merwin, I used to teach in my literature classes. I always loved this poem because of its deliberate lack of punctuation, which leaves it open to be read in different ways. For example, if Merwin had punctuated the first few lines as follows—My friend says, “I was not a good son, you understand?” I say, “yes, I understand”—then it could be read that the friend is commenting on his own relationship with his father. However, if you read it with the word that omitted, as most people do in speech, then it would be as follows: My friend says [that] I was not a good son—an accusation against the speaker.

My students used to enjoy playing around with this particular poem; I always felt that it was a perfect example of how poetry can be open-ended, meaning dependent upon what we as individuals bring to the text. Either way, though, the poem is about regret.

The second selection is from a longer poem from I poet who I only found recently. The speaker in this one is female, but as soon as I read it, I was reminded of the Merwin poem, which I had to hunt for because I couldn’t remember the title. In this poem as well I sense a great deal of regret for things unspoken on both sides. This one really reminded me of my father, just as the Merwin one used to remind me of the relationship that I had with my father while he was still alive.

Regret can kill you.

More later. Peace.

Note: I didn’t realize until after posting that I had already used this Merwin poem in a previous post, but as I love it so much, I decided not to change it; I just hope that I didn’t make the same comments . . .


Yesterday

My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father’s hand the last time
he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

oh yes I say

but if you are busy he said
I don’t want you to feel that you
have to
just because I’m here

I say nothing

he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I don’t want to keep you

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know

though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do

~ W. S. Merwin


“father. you always call to say nothing in particular. you
ask what i’m doing or where i am and when the silence
stretches like a lifetime between us i scramble to find
questions to keep the conversation going. what i long to say most is.
i understand this world broke you. it has been so hard on your feet.
i don’t blame you for not knowing how to remain soft with me. sometimes i stay up thinking
of all the places you are hurting which you’ll never care to mention. i come from the same aching blood. from the same bone so desperate for attention i collapse in on myself. i am your daughter. i know the small talk is the only way you know how to tell me you love me. cause it is the only way i know how to tell you.”

~ Rupi Kaur, from “The Hurting,” in Milk and Honey


Music by Gert Taberner, “Fallen”

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“Certain words now in our knowledge we will not use again, and we will never forget them. We need them. Like the back of the picture.” ~ W.S. Merwin

Georgia O'Keeffe Lake George 1922 oil on canvas
“Lake George” (1922, oil on canvas)
by Georgia O’Keeffe

                   

Two for Tuesday: The Face of Memory

I came across the first poem whilst looking for poems about autumn. The second poem is one that I taught in my literature classes as an example of the importance of line breaks and decisions poets make when composing.

Lawren Harris, Lake Superior Sketch III c1925
“Lake Superior Sketch III” (c1925)
by Lawren Harris

                   

This Morning

As I drive into town
the driver in front of me
runs a stop sign.
A pedestrian pulls down his cap.
A man comes out of his house
to sweep the steps.
Ordinariness
bright as raspberries.

I turn on the radio.
Somebody tells me
the day is sunny and warm.
A woman laughs

and my daughter steps out of the radio.
Grief spreads in my throat like strep.
I had forgotten, I was happy, I maybe
was humming “You Are My Lucky Star,”
a song I may have invented.
Sometimes a red geranium, a dog,
a stone
will carry me away.
But not for long.
Some memory or another of her
catches up with me and stands
like an old nun behind a desk,
ruler in hand.

~ Jo McDougall

                   

Arthur B Carles Moonlight c1908
“Moonlight” (c1908, oil on canvasboard)
by Arthur B. Carles

Yesterday

My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father’s hand the last time

he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

oh yes I say

but if you are busy he said
I don’t want you to feel that you
have to
just because I’m here

I say nothing

he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I don’t want to keep you

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know
though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do

W. S. Merwin

                   

Music by The Careful Ones, “Silhouettes”