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Twelve Views of My Father

ISSUE:  Spring 2004


Grown so young she has a name, my father’s
grandmother, Cleavy Rowe, settles into
the portrait’s ancient rocking chair,
having never told a living soul
about her boy who died as
she, for the first time,
holds him.


Look, seal-slick and laughing,
all lashes, lips, and glowing teeth,
at this clacketing machine unspooling
the angel who became my father.
Six, seven maybe, diving
into a wave that breaks and breaks.


O black-lunged colliers of Wylam,
of Pittsburgh, of Wales,
why do you rise from your graves?

Do you not see how your child, my father,
drives a spike
through the blinding white day?


Thick as a mangrove
veined with strangler vines,
the forearm
around my neck
tightens as he sings—
as I touch the gold ring
grown like fence-wire
through mossed bark.


Exactly as dark as whatever
swallowed the room:
breeze of Maker’s Mark,
of Captain Black,

O stiff beard-bristles
brush my lips—


I don’t know which to prefer,
the scald of shame
or absence.
My father in an eyeless rage
or after.


We were always seven
at the table:
me and my brother,
my sister, my mother,
my father, and my father, and my father.


Among life’s joking poker-players,
few-calls-makers, and guys
who know a guy who knows a guy,

I always hear my father dickering
the mortician, saying Pop
never paid retail in his life, and would rot
in hell before he’d ride
full-price to heaven.


How does the boy become the man
lolling on a gurney?

How could the young nurse know
my father, wagging his index and pinky,
just turned a double play?

as he mumbles through the blue mask, Two
down baby. Two away.


Because we are so far away
the zippered strands of DNA
compose themselves like stalks
in a far cornfield, or like dots
of newsprint in a photograph:
of me, my father, and his father’s face
flickering, in fear, across my son.


Behind the photograph, behind the photograph,
behind the downward-creeping pane:
he stares as only a dead man stares
when no one living knows his name.


Somewhere behind my eyes
it’s snowing in Lilburn.
Always snowing as I ride
his shoulders,
and watch the snow
dust every hill
and valley of my father.


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