My father checked himself into the VA Medical Center in Philadelphia a few weeks ago and it’s not clear when or if he’ll be able to leave again. He’s been managing congestive heart failure for a while. Now he needs surgery for a leaky valve and just isn’t well enough to undergo it. Every time I think of him my heart starts racing, triggering a tickly cough that faintly echoes my father’s wet gasping. It’s funny how you can be annoyed by your body’s speech—the symbolism of this sudden ailment is too obvious, like bad writing—but your body refuses to shut up.
May 22, on the train from New Jersey to Penn Station, I review the poems I’ve decided to read in Bryant Park. Then I pick up Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. Before the Pulitzer, I’d ordered it for the David Bowie/ sf title, read it quickly and liked it but put it away for a while. Recently I started rereading it slowly and had arrived at section two. Rushing past Princeton Junction towards Newark, I open to “The Speed of Belief.” It’s about sitting in a hospital room with a dying father. Soon I’ll be walking through the city at the center of the world—I think Smith and Bowie both live in New York—on my way to the library. I’ll admire the rotunda, pore over the Shelley exhibit, take my turn at the microphone, and then listen to the human voices of poets I know through their smart, kind books: Ely Shipley, Scott Hightower, Richard Blanco. Behind each of them will be a statue of William Earl Dodge, only visible to the waist. I’ll study it, imagining him young and happy and relaxed, and be surprised by his upper half when I google him days later. Stern businessman’s face, bushy mutton-chops.
I will visit my father the next day after a harrowing drive into Philadelphia. Only my sister has been there; his young third wife has never shown up, although she served him divorce papers in hospital, probably afraid of being stuck with his bills. My sister has seen some bad days, but the nurse tells me this is a good one. He’s sitting calmly, sometimes coherent, sometimes disoriented. I see relationships in his newly-gaunt face: a resemblance to me, my siblings, my children, but also to his Swedish mother and grandmother. Martha Carlson’s slanting blue eyes and prominent cheekbones, there all along. Suddenly his dentures seem too big for the smallness of his jaw. “I don’t need much in my old age but I’m not getting what I need,” he says. “What do you need?” I ask. “Peace and quiet,” answers the former sailor who still fights with everyone he meets, whose three ex-wives, five children, and many old friends and girlfriends can’t tolerate his company. He chose life on Mars, is choosing it.
He’s still friendly with his roommate, though; that hasn’t exploded yet. I chat with Harry, who grew up in Puerto Rico and then taught social studies to elementary students in Camden for many years. Harry lights up when he learns I’m a writer. “Ah, poetry,” he sighs. “Poetry makes life bearable.”
I need to write about Smith’s Life on Mars, although my head’s too noisy today. I resonate like a bell whenever she alludes to Bowie, but there’s a lot more—the poems are skeptical-spiritual, a paradox I love. Certain poems about reincarnation made me wonder if she’s a fan of James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. And all the science fiction! I’ve been wondering why no one seems to write poems in the future tense, and there on page 7 is “Sci-fi”: “the word sun will have been reassigned/ To a Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device/ Found in households and nursing homes.”
My physical heart is rushing, so part of me wants to know the ending of my father’s sad story. The projection booth in my head, though, is just a big tangle of film, past-present-future looped together. The tangle is upsetting but also sort of beautiful and interesting, at least when I can regulate my breathing, anyway. The soundtrack helps.