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Naming the Father


ISSUE:  Summer 1998
I

On the eve of that terrible war we call the world’s first,
German soldiers trudged toward the future.
How many copies of Death
in Venice were jammed in travel sacks,
next to a mother’s gift of stationary and a father’s
garment offered for the cold night?
A vacation packing, it would seem,
except for the uncertain trembling lips,
the final clasping of the family’s hands
and then that clasp broken like the last lock
of the heart, and the mother weeps and waves,
weeps and reaches out the worn hand that still,
after the hard years of his adolescence, is not weary
of her child. And the father, ever-silent.
I’m not imagining all of this. History remembers
thousands of German knapsacks stuffed with the story
of Aschenbach and Tadzio, of water, a sandy shore,

the bells of death, doomed love—the old story—
the distinguished gentleman failing
to warn the boy of a sweeping illness.
The silent father, above us all,
watching and guiding—his influential gaze
pushing us toward death, finally, but first
every glory on the path.

II

In the diaries of Thomas Mann, there are visitations
of beautiful young men, those who drifted briefly
across his view, in gardens and trains, and one
who was his own, his son. The father marking
the boy’s bare back with ink, and that son died
with that love—can we call it desire?—scrawled on his flesh.
Died of his own hand—pushed, the critics say,
by the lingering eye of the father, the occasional
caress, perhaps. But what if that father was only the shadow
of some weightless body, distant in space, the shadow
of some ruling planet? A silent body roaming the void,
lending its voice to a stern and covetous father.

III

Astronomers debate the fate of Pluto, question
whether this dark body, the ninth planet, smaller
than Earth’s moon, deserves planetary status.
As if in crime, Pluto has been accused of being
merely one of Neptune’s moons—a task, I imagine,
the astronomers deem unworthy of a planet.
But Pluto crowded the house of my birth. I know him,
he is my own: crafter of obstacles, dense
wrecking ball. When the combines
break in November, know he is in the fields.
He will make you harvest the wheat by hand,
press you to achieve impossible tasks.

In him, I find the truth of Father, in him,
all arrangements for acclaim and disaster,
mapped—his will working its resolve
through all I have been given:
country, body, lovers, voice. From the beginning,
his will through the calamitous proximity,
the fragrant nearness of the man
who is my mother’s husband—a statue,
crazed with vine, encountered
in the child’s garden. Massive,
yet if viewed from the uninhabitable distance,
he would seem only a device, a tarot, an exacting shadow,
under whose rule the child must live.

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