Today’s selections are the last two poems in the first section of my unpublished chapbook, Who Would You Be? (Hell, that alone was a mouthful.) I spent a long, long time dealing with the subject of a drunk, abusive father, both from the child’s perspective and the adult reflecting back. Like the fantastic poet Bruce Weigl imparted to me, after, I believe, poet James Wright imparted to him, “You were given a subject matter. Write about it.” I suppose that’s pretty self-explanatory, but if not, here’s the deal. Weigl, like Wright, was attempting to communicate the notion that, rather than shying away from the life we know, from the memories that haunt us, we should embrace them. These are the things that define us, and to ignore them is an injustice to both us and our readers. Do we lie? Of course we do. But we don’t lie to deceive our audience; rather, we do so in order to get to a “greater truth.” If we can elicit a reaction, be it one of identification or comfort or some other visceral experience, we have succeeded.
With that, today’s poems deal with a topic I’ve written about (and blogged about) many times over. The first poem went through several variations in grad school, whereas the second received little to no feedback, as I never brought it into any workshops. In fact, it was more of a response to the chapbook’s title poem, which I featured in my first post in the “Versus” series. Is this my life? Of course not. Not really, anyway. Does it even matter? All I know is that it was my subject for a long time, and still remains so.
After working the night shift
my father came to me in beer bottles
and the liquid stink of bourbon. His
bleary gaze wandered from stairwell
to hall, into the wood starved of polish,
the roller skates stripped of wheels.
I sized up what we didn’t have — learned
to give up hope for logoed sneakers
and a family meal to set your watch by.
He reminded me with a wooden spoon
that Money don’t grow on trees.
He kept his money in a jelly jar,
and wouldn’t drop a dime to feed
my baby brother, strapped
into his high chair where my old man
could still see him but didn’t
have to care. My brother,
who swallowed air, ate what we ate
or went hungry,
not like my best friend who’d go home
after school and eat entire sleeves
of sugar cookies. Thick with whiskey,
her father would swing his wild fists
and beat her face to porridge.
My god how I envied her:
all that sugar, all that love.
Who You Are
The night my old man turned fifty, he stood
in the frame of my bedroom door, balanced
by what must have been sheer will. Seeing him
was like staring straight into a casket
with the back cut out. I know who you are,
my father slurred, chest puffed out for effect,
too drunk to steady his muscled grip
around whatever glass of brown booze
his hands allowed him to pour. But I
wanna know who you think you are?
Fair question, I tell myself now. But back then,
plagued by my sixteen year-old need to be a man,
it was some sort of riddle I couldn’t possibly
get right. I ain’t the son of God, I cracked,
but I sure’s hell a son of somethin’.
His flimsy hold gave way. Even now the smash
of glass against the floorboards seems one
with his backhand smacked across my face,
purpling my lips and cheekbone. I said nothing,
buried myself in blankets, helpless to see him
plod away. I hoped he might wander off the map,
scamper out into the blizzard of headlights
running up and down Progress Ave., tracking him
like shotguns after a lumbering bear. Instead
I heard his bedroom door crash downhall, and knew
he’d made home. That night I dreamed my father
at the foot of my bed, sitting Indian-style, naked,
in what looked like meditation or prayer.
I had a clear shot at the back of his head,
but couldn’t take it. Instead I ripped my shirt off
and dressed it taut around my pillow, then collapsed
into the new me for some small amount of comfort.
I’m thinking about moving into death, he finally said.
I’m thinking that should you swing at me, shitbag —
son, you might kill us both.