Paternity suit

dc-obama

Father’s Day used to be a hard one. When my father was alive, I knew he wanted to be fussed over, but he was an unpredictably mean-spirited person who’d praise my intelligence one minute and mock me the next for my unattractiveness, my career choices, or my politics–and he was doing the same to my siblings and worse to my mother. There were times he and I weren’t speaking, but most years I shopped for funny rather than sentimental cards and kept the peace. Like everyone else he knew, as far as I can tell, I was relieved when he died.

So, like plenty of other ambivalent people, I watch all loving posts from friends about their sweet fathers with some wonder. It’s only the past few years that I can do so without grief at what I missed. I even used to feel jealous of my own kids, who (rightly) adore their dad.

For whatever reason, I’m okay now, and more genuinely able to feel glad for people cherishing that relationship or remembering it fondly. The more love in the world, the better. Plus I enjoy my kids’ enjoyment of time with Chris, which helps, too–one thing I definitely didn’t screw up as a parent was marrying him. This weekend he and I stayed overnight in Washington, D.C. visiting my daughter, who is interning at the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation. It was fun to take her commute from Foggy Bottom to the Hill and see the garden where she eats lunch (when she’s not in the Senate cafeteria), and just to catch up with her about the good work she’s up to. We ate well, too, and saw a decent play (The Remains at the Studio Theater), but I was especially grateful for museum time. For a palate cleanser after hanging around the Senate, we visited the Obamas in the National Portrait Gallery. Chris took the shot above, in which you might be able to spot Madeleine taking her own picture of the Chuck Close portrait of Clinton. The images below are mine of James Weldon Johnson, Marianne Moore with her mother, and Paul Laurence Dunbar brooding behind Gertrude Stein.

Today, lots of people are also posting about the ironies of celebrating Father’s Day even as our government is brutally separating parents and children at the border–a devastating continuation of a long history of destroying families, as the U.S. did through enslavement and the American Indian boarding school system, not to mention the dangers to children now from gun violence, rising addiction rates, unjust public education systems, and many other crises. I want to be able to talk about U.S. human rights abuses in the past tense–admitting them, trying to heal and make a better future, but also firmly locating them behind us–like I can in a personal way with my father. Clearly, that’s not yet. I hope it’s more possible when our own kids finish growing up and help vote some of these jerks out of office. I see a lot to hope for, in the generation beginning to come of age.

In the meantime, here’s a poem about other fathers that I never managed to publish anywhere–from 2011, when my father was in his final downward spiral. Some of the poets I cite were good fathers to me, and a couple not so much, but they all shaped who I am.

Paternity Suit

My father Langston hands his camel jacket to the coat-check lady.
He lifts his menu with a flourish and says now you order anything, anything.
My father Thomas Stearns says use your inside voice.
Embarrassment beads his forehead.
My father Ezra chants a grace to drive the waiter mad.
My father John Keats urges a scalpel between cork and bottle.
A candle-flame repeats in glass, wine, his hectic cheeks.
My father Walt pries open mollusk after mollusk, grooves on his thumbs adoring the grooves of each inky shell.
My father Allen insists I eat my broccoli broccoli broccoli and the outrageous curry of hilarity anoints his beard.
My father James Merrill, tortoiseshell-buttoned, conserves naked chicken bones for broth.
I will bathe them, he says, with bay leaves, peppercorns, and whole onions quartered through paper to root.
When the liquid alchemizes I will strain its gold and measure in cubes of potato, crystals of salt.
This soup will be for you.

My father father sits with another family in a dining room I have never visited.
I used to peer downstairs at two in the morning, when only the streetlight shone into the kitchen;
he hoisted bergs of chocolate ice cream to his mouth with a shaky hand.
My father wore short pajamas, cotton striped with lines so faint I only imagined I could read them.
Maybe I heard the clink, clink of his spoon.

Writing the motherland

“How many of you,” Betsy asked the audience, “think you know your mother’s mind, maybe better than she knows herself?”

Whoops, I thought, raising my hand. That’s arrogant of me. But trying to read my mother’s mind was one of the most urgent and constant occupations of my childhood and teenage years, and I’ve kept up that imaginative work, writing poems from her perspective in Heterotopiaand eighteen months ago, trying to negotiate her into hospitalizations she was resisting. “She’s English” is one of the ways I’ve explained it to others and myself–meaning concealment of suffering is an ingrained impulse with her, forcing me into detective mode. But of course it’s not just that. Many of my friends report the same frustrated efforts at maternal telepathy. And I pass silence down the generations when I clamp my own mouth shut. Sometimes I so fear saying something wrong to my daughter that I say nothing which is, of course, another harmful message.

Early on, my daughter became my very best mind-reader. “You have a tell,” she coolly informed me when she was seven. “When you lie, you raise the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence.” I was gobsmacked, still am, and think of her every time I try to conceal my own woes but my voice slides up an octave.

borderlands-draftMother’s Day is not far off, but mothering is also on my mind because I just got back from the CityLit Festival in Baltimore, where I was participating in a celebration of Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland, edited by Jane Satterfield and Laurie Kruk. Laurie had flown down from Canada for the weekend and read from her contribution, as did Baltimorean Betsy Boyd and Marilyn Moriarty, a Hollins professor I’d somehow never met. Jane played moderator and finished up with a poem by Rishma Dunlop. It was an intense reading, because it’s an intense book. No Hallmark pink aisle fake news here. Mothering is intensely complicated, as is being a daughter, and the many border-crossings addressed in these pieces tend to fray mother-daughter connections still further. If anyone protests that it’s all sweetness, listen for the tell.

When it was my turn, I talked about motherhood being, for me at least, an occasion for constant dread and peril. I’ve been reading the book in small doses–all the poems first, and now the prose–and it’s clear I’m not alone. I just finished Camille T. Dungy’s essay “A Brief History of Near and Actual Losses,” a riveting account of visiting west Africa with her not-quite-three-year-old daughter, who knows a slave dungeon when she sees one. I recommend it, and the whole collection, strongly.

I remember chasing toddlers vividly, but to my surprise, that constant state of vigilant panic never stops. It just changes. Some of it is totally irrational. I once told my 13 year old not to shower until we got back from our walk in case he slipped and hit his head and drowned, and he really gave me an earful. But the same kid, now 16, has been having migraines forever while we wait for the neurologist appointment, and my daughter is planning a summer internship in Siberia. I can talk myself out of full-bore terror about these scares, but it’s right to be cautious, to keep asking questions and paying attention. As they get bigger and more competent, so does the field of risk.

Anyway, at this lovely event, I met the fear head-on. I chose to read Marilyn L. Taylor’s sonnet “To the Mother of a Dead Marine”–a poem that represents a parent’s nightmare–and “Zebra” by January Gill O’Neil, a fierce encouragement to her son to “Raise those ears. Kick your legs,” triumphing over people who would diminish him. I also read my own contribution to the collection, the alarmingly titled “Abortion Radio,” also collected in RadiolandIt features not just worry but the preemptive guilt I always feel, framed by testimonies heard on a religious radio station on the way back from Lynchburg late one night. It owes something, I’m sure, to the famous and much greater abortion poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton, but I don’t know what. A sense of death’s closeness, maybe. The terrible mixture of power and powerlessness mothers feel.

Abortion Radio

God told me and I did not listen, the tinny
speakers lament. Outside the car, ghost boles
of oaks float by. Brown leaves jump up
from the mountain road, swirl down again. I felt
something pass, I caught it, my baby. Tiny
hands, skin translucent. Every stump resembles
a deer that’s poised to leap. My friend just hit
a doe last night, driving home from a conference,
having missed her son’s bedtime for three
nights running. Her first thought: I killed a baby.
She stood in my office door to tell the story,
her eyes pinking up as she laughed at herself.
Shortwave talk refracts through me while I
tune in a stronger signal. A spouse has put
the kettle on, and children sleep in nests
of pastel belief. The deer my friend struck
lay down by the faded line at the verge of the road.
Its sides fluttered fast and then it died.
It went somewhere. Everyone goes somewhere.

Red wolf howl

Okay, so the red wolf is not a separate species but a hybrid of gray wolf and coyote. That kind of makes me like them more. What’s celebrated as local is mixed, impure.

red wolfMaking a fetish of purity–racial, ideological, national–is not just hateful. It’s dumb. No person is unmixed, no policy, no poem. That was an important problem for me to think through when I was writing the chapter on lyric collaborations for Voicing American Poetry, and it’s why I just revisited related questions in my “process” blog for Modernism/ Modernity, “On collaboration (or, she do the blog in different voices).” It’s also an important fact to remember as a citizen, watching or avoiding all the good and bad news out there. We’re all connected. The Obamas and Clintons speak for my America and so, frighteningly, does Trump. Freddie Gray’s tragedy is my tragedy. The failure of law to address his death is my failure.

Everyone forgets or represses or denies those links, sometimes. Reading that article on wolf species in today’s paper brought to mind the poem below, another outtake from Radioland, first published in Valparaiso Poetry Review in 2012. I know I’d recently read some monorhyme sonnets and thought hey, that’s cool–but I can’t remember whom I’m echoing here. I didn’t quite get the form to work–only the twelve middle lines close on the “n” sound–but I ended up liking the way lines 1 and 14 call to each other across a distance.

I do remember writing it when, on a family vacation in North Carolina, we went on “safari” in the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge. This meant a bunch of cars following rangers at twilight. Bullfrogs sounded loudly among the reeds, but our guides never managed to stir up a wolf howl. I lingered last, though, and after everyone else drove away, finally heard their weird cries. Listening felt like connection–like responsibility.

Red Wolf Howl

Their cries rise sweet and high like questions, cross
each other’s tracks in the air, the wildest din
you have ever heard./ Some rangers caravan
with tourists down a gravel road. No one
can see the wolves: they hide among the pine
and cedar, rusting in the pocosin,
trailing the white-tailed deer. While everyone
parks, two guides hike closer to the breeding pen
and howl encouragement. The canids listen,
but why should they answer us? Some insects moan
to sharpen the silence; secret frogs complain.

The group gives up. It’s nearly dark. Our van
loiters as the other tail-lights vanish. Open
windows. Then we hear them. They ask, and ask.

 

Mathy Radioland

I was tickled that JoAnne Growney wanted to put “Concentric Grooves” from Radioland on her blog “Intersections–Poetry with Mathematics,” but her request also jogged a memory of an unpublished poem from the same era that was even MORE mathy. I finally found “Disaster Math,” a poem I sent out a couple of times then gave up on, never entirely confident I had it right. After a several-year gap, however, I saw a few tweaks that might help, so I brushed it up and include it below–another Radioland outtake.

It probably overlaps too much with the sonnet crown “Damages” to have worked in the book. I do that a lot, writing numerous poems about a single crisis, trying to understand it, so some versions get factored out. Mathematical language features in a lot of writing from this part of my life because my father was a civil engineer–I remember his slide rule being replaced, in the 70s, by an obsession with programmable calculators. Oddly, while more mathematical than “Damages,” “Disaster Math” is also more focused on stories. What I often felt, trying to process my parents’ break-up from a great distance, was that I was a creature made of stories, and the universe had suddenly insisted on radical revisions, unbalancing an equilibrium I’d lived with for decades. Thanks so much to JoAnne for featuring one poem and reminding me of the others!

Disaster Math

Before instruments detected
his infidelity, one man began deleting
his wife, three children, bridge partners.
85 leaves 71 for 45.
Everyone a node of intersecting stories.

One snap among the snagged lines
reengineers a whole system:
20,000 on the withdrawal slip, therefore
a wife opens drawers and solves for x.
Reports it to their daughter, 43,

who lives on a strike-slip fault
9000 miles away, just north of a 6.3
shock as Australian and Pacific plates grate.
Death toll 159, but it rises in the falling action.
How can these outcomes coincide?

the daughter wonders, vibrating
alongside the numbers, waiting
for their force to dissipate. Propose
it never does. Propose broken columns,
integer debris. She studies the latest stats:

central business district closed till Christmas at least;
some bodies may never be identified; the cost
may never be tallied. Tangles wires and roads
and words and digits and code:
dividends of underground geometry.

She tells it over and over. Buildings collapsed and I
was too far away to feel it. I am safe. He
is a fissure emitting no signal but people build bridges
all the time, they cross as I am crossing, fibers
of plot chafing my palms. Listening ahead, calling behind.

triangles
Triangles–my father’s ruler and a Mobius strip he carved

Radioland, an outtake

The world’s going to hell, but my writing is going well…Mostly revising and submitting, these days. I now have THREE projects under submission: 1. Taking Poetry Personally: Twenty-First Century Verse and the Multiverse; 2. a chapbook-length long poem, Propagation; 3. and a first novel, The Changeling Professor, although that one is just at the beginning-to-query-agents phase. Meanwhile I’m keeping poems under journal submission, and in the process I keep finding verses I drafted quickly and then forgot about. Whenever you put together a poetry book a LOT ends up on the cutting room floor.

I think the poem below was just too specific to my life at that moment–it didn’t seem inclusive enough of readers outside my bubble. I’d just attended a memorial service for Severn Parker Duvall III, the grand, legendary, reportedly cranky old poetry professor whom I’d replaced at W&L (I say “reportedly” because the man left behind some astonishing stories, all of which I believe, but he was always beautifully genteel to me). The immediate scene is the lawn in front of Lee Chapel on campus, where I was leading a workshop in a writing prompt (and doing some drafting myself, obviously). Like a lot of poems, though, this one has a heterotopia, an other-place: I’d been back from my Fulbright in New Zealand for less than a year and clearly missed it.

I’m looking forward to reading from Radioland at Washington College in MD next week. In the meantime, a poem for the road. Maybe it’s about running out of time and not entirely minding.

The Opposite of Elegy

The shadow of a chapel spire ticks over
my shoulder; the students write. Severn said,
“Do you mean of my departure?”

when his granddaughter asked, “Are you scared?”
Struck like a bell but finally amused
by the notion of fearing death.

Last night’s dead-hour dream fused
everything I’ve been thinking of: I
visited an old hotel, beachy views,

near Nelson, New Zealand. Bill Manhire
was running a poetry conference
that was really the afterlife.

When told I had to jump back over the fence,
return to the living for a while, I cried…
My students are still writing. Present tense

continuous, sprawling all over a spikily
germinating lawn. Younger and smarter
every year. Sere leaves brushed aside.

I guess that’s spring for you. Clock for a heart.

April 2, 2012

roseoneill