Dead Father Poems
The best condolence note so far was an offer from a former student who grew up in New Orleans: “Let me know and I’ll put the voodoo on her.” It came with an anecdote about an effective curse on a scheming widow. Her jinxed swimming pool cracked as if buckling under an invisible burden of guilt. This is one good outcome of teaching poets. They rarely make the dough to create scholarships in your name or loan you their tropical islands for vacations, but they do know just what to say.
A few notes from the last few weeks:
- Please don’t be disappointed in me but I did not read a poem at my father’s funeral. It was a brief military service at Washington Crossing National Cemetery, involving a small but very mixed crowd: my brother, sister and brother-in-law; my spouse; my kids and their cousins, ranging in age from five to sixteen; my father’s most recent wife, a woman my age who had served him divorce papers in hospital a week before he died; a few of her friends and relations; and a couple of people from the senior center where my father played bridge and began an affair with his widow-to-be. I knew I would be the only speaker and decided I just needed to say a few true things plainly.
- Writing a eulogy is appallingly like writing a blog post. You have a limited window of composition, although you may have been mulling over the material for years (I basically had a day); it has to be pithy; it’s an ephemeral piece but you know if you screw it up those mistakes could dog you for a long time. This means you choose a theme, pound it out, revise once, put your dress on, and blurt. The audience is as blank-faced as the ether but afterwards a few post comments or hit the “like” button.
- My words were sort of literary. I spoke about our afterlives in the tales others tell about us. A storytelling motif seemed appropriate, given that I’m a poet, my dad was not honest, and neither of us feels/felt certain about any other kind of heaven. It allowed me to tell a factual story about his life, bringing in memories of other family members, acknowledging the bad while honoring the good. That’s what I tried for, anyway.
- Of course I was THINKING about poems, two in particular, both of them monuments. Lines from Sylvia Plath’s “The Colossus” kept rising before my eyes, with a vision of a tiny woman sitting on scaffolding, scrubbing down a giant statue of her father with pails of Lysol: “I shall never get you put together entirely… Thirty years now I have labored/ To dredge the silt from your throat./ I am none the wiser.”
- And, of course, there’s Dylan Thomas. I told a poet-friend months ago about the dissolution of my parents’ marriage and she replied, “Talk about ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’!” Just days before the funeral I was talking to someone else about villanelles and she agreed that, perfect as it is, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” seems stupider in its basic sentiment the older one gets. I am now trying to write a villanelle containing the phrase “Enough with rage.” I have low hopes for it but need to give my two cents to Mr. Thomas. (It makes no sense that while I believe my father can’t hear me, I CAN talk to dead poets. I’m entitled to irrationality for the time being, right?)
- Did you know that poets.org has a mini-anthology of “Dead Father Poems”? Go to the “Do Not Go Gentle” page and look left. Scott Hightower’s “The Father” is pretty great.
- This post sounds flippant, I’m guessing, and angry; to use Thomas’ language, there’s more cursing than blessing. I am angry at my father’s widow, who behaved badly at the funeral. Letting us see the will without a legal injunction shouldn’t be too much to ask, and she should have directed the flag and condolences to his children, given the circumstances, instead of sending over her sister to whisper promises that “you will get what you want, just not today” (meaning: I’ll tell you anything to keep you quiet in front of my friends). She should let his grandchildren have some worthless keepsakes; otherwise, three of the six don’t have a single pleasant memory of the man. She should be a less awful person.
- But, you know, people are awful, and she can’t do us any long term hurt. My father can’t hurt us anymore, either; it’s done, and I can see my way towards forgiving him. It would dishonor everyone to forget mean things he did and said, but I think there’s a way to let the bad stuff float off without disappearing. To live at a scenic distance from it. It will involve a lot of writing and remembering and attention.
- What it doesn’t seem to involve so far, though, is grieving as I recognize it from other losses, not to mention novels, movies, and all those fierce dead father poems. I heard my spouse telling someone: “She had to put her feelings in a box and we don’t know where the box went.” He could be right; I’m waiting for the alleged box to burst, but I don’t think my feelings are unfolding that way. I worked hard before he died to surrender hope he’d transform into a loving person. “No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel/ On the blank stones of the landing”: I suspect Plath never did stop listening, but I did attain strategic hopelessness, after lots of grieving. One sad true thing: I don’t miss who he was, just who he never was. I’d like to be done with rage and with Lysol.