The Fathers Fight Back
As I was visiting my 70-year-old father on Father’s Day last week, we fell into a discussion of how I developed my love of reading. When I was growing up, we had few books in our house that were not bibles. One summer, when I was nine or ten, I discovered that the public library’s Bookmobile made a weekly stop at the strip mall about a mile from my house. The Bookmobile was a blue and white bus, dark and cavernous on the inside. The shelves were set at at 45% angle so none of the books would fly off in transit. For me, it was a kind of portal into a new world of storytelling.
On my weekly pilgrimage to the Bookmobile, I discovered authors like John D. Fitzgerald, whose semi-autobiographical books about growing up reflected so many of my own boyhood fears and ambitions. For the first time in my life, I felt as if I was reading about real people, not biblical characters in some far-out place and time. I spend a lot of my time now writing about this country’s environmental problems. But I think the Bookmobile still lurks in the background, both a literal and metaphorical vehicle for the power of story to communicate the complex realism of this country.
That’s what I was telling my father last Sunday.
“Why didn’t I ever know any of that?” he said, looking at me and then my mother. “Why didn’t I know about the Bookmobile?
“Well,” I said, “you know, you were at work.”
“Someone could have told me when I got home,” he replied. “That’s something I would have liked to have known about.”
My father was a mechanical engineer. I guess it never occurred to me that he would have cared about such things. So I didn’t tell him. Now I see that there might have been hundreds of things we could have talked about, other ways we might have communicated outside the realm of sports.
A few days after our conversation, I picked up The Best American Poetry of 2008, edited by Charles Wright. I came across this fine poem by Bob Hicok, and the silence that has so much defined my space between my and my father came back to me with a new intensity and resonance:
“O my pa-pa”
Our fathers have formed a poetry workshop.
They sit in a circle of disappointment over our fastballs
and wives. We thought they didn’t read our stuff,
whole anthologies of poems that begin, My father never,
or those that end, and he was silent as a carp,
or those with middles which, if you think
of the right side as a sketch, look like a paunch
of beer and worry, but secretly, with flashlights
in the woods, they’ve read every word and noticed
that our nine happy poems have balloons and sex
and giraffes inside, but not one dad waving hello
from the top of a hill at dusk. Theirs
is the revenge school of poetry, with titles like
“My Yellow Sheet Lad” and “Given Your Mother’s Taste
for Vodka, I’m Pretty Sure You’re Not Mine.”
They’re not trying to make the poems better
so much as sharper or louder, more like a fishhook
or electrocution, as a group
they overcome their individual senilities,
their complete distaste for language, how cloying
it is, how like tears it can be, and remember
every mention of their long hours at the office
or how tired they were when they came home,
when they were dragged through the door
by their shadows. I don’t know why it’s so hard
to write a simple and kind poem to my father, who worked,
not like a dog, dogs sleep most of the day in a ball
of wanting to chase something, but like a man, a man
with seven kids and a house to feed, whose absence
was his presence, his present, the Cheerios,
the PF Flyers, who taught me things about trees,
that they’re the most intricate version of standing up,
who built a grandfather clock with me so I would know
that time is a constructed thing, a passing, ticking fancy.
A bomb. A bomb that’ll go off soon for him, for me,
and I notice in our fathers’ poems a reciprocal dwelling
on absence, that they wonder why we disappeared
as soon as we got our licenses, why we wanted
the rocket cars, as if running away from them
to kiss girls who looked like mirrors of our mothers
wasn’t fast enough, and it turns out they did
start to say something, to form the words hey
or stay, but we’d turned into a door full of sun,
into the burning leave, and were gone
before it came to them that it was all right
to shout, that they should have knocked us down
with a hand on our shoulders, that they too are mystified
by the distance men need in their love.
Source: Poetry (May 2007).
I love Hicok’s idea of a poetry workshop for the fathers of poets, wherein they get back at their ungrateful sons for writing poems beginning, “My father never …,” but never poems that said, “My father waved at me from the top of a hill at dusk ….” And I like his idea that our fathers’ absence–the times we were at the Bookmobile, developing our conflicted inner lives–was actually a kind of presence. Who, after all, bought me the tennis shoes with which I walked down to the Bookmobile?
I guess what I’m saying is that, for those of us who traffic in the autobiographical, we should learn to tread lightly at times, be not so quick to judge. Especially our fathers, who may have seemed “silent as a carp,” but in reality, might have been struggling fiercely to overcome “the distance men need in their love.”
And to the persistent question, “What is poetry for?” I offer up Bob Hicok’s poem as one answer.