David Swartz "RELIGION WITH AN EDGE"
biblicalfictions.com
Poetry for the Curious across the Religious Spectrum
Requiem

                               for my father 

 

        

i       

 

 

Very early, perhaps I was 3,

He pulled my foreskin back and showed me

How to clean what he called dirty.

There were cufflinks on his shirt; neither he

Nor his hair was mussed,

No, impeccable, fussed

Straight back with a part in a black

Perfection.  I cannot attack

His appearance,

The gold-filled chain, a chance

Now and then to peruse

What it held secure, or even use

His manly after-shave,

My father, now seven days in a rural grave,

And I with my pain,

Trying to regain some sense of where he was

And where he came from, because

I only know the last ten years

As kind and gentle, having mastered my fears

Of the officious superintendent

He became, effulgent and splendid,

And I so eager to wrest some tenderness

In my OWN wilderness

From a man too remote to reach,

Retract, resolve, beseech,

The largest man in my universe,

That intractable curse

Of adolescent angst, my cruel

Failure in the fields, if not in school,

As day by day I fought his work-day splendor

(Hoping perhaps his son would end there),

Chasing a shadow some forty-odd terrible years,

Chasing my fears

That the father would never indulge his son

With the closeness of childhood, begun

And ended in a bathroom at scarcely 3,

And then, quite then, quite suddenly,

Reaching his heart with poetry.

 

 

ii  

 

 

When he was old, past 80,

He was wise, to such extent that people can,

And he was kind, and he was generous,

And he was loving and good, and

 

He carried his age with dignity,

As much as any, and he laughed a deep

True laugh, that lacked bitterness and spite,

With sleep in his soul and quiet.

 

 

iii   

 

 

When I was not yet 12

I learned to puzzle over what he stood for,

Or confuse him for Jehovah,

An angry God

That found me kneeling in an alley

Before the predator.

 

When I was not yet 7

I lost the quiet of my being,

Waking from ether

To pain in my throat and penis.

I was always missing the latter.

Even with Johanna I found neither.

 

Nights at a hardwood bar

Discussing Sartre.

Later in a stranger’s room,

My wife the martyr.

At 24 as handsome as the knife I wielded

At her throat, the blade that caught her.

 

And when I fell

The coming back was harder,

And I fell deeper.

And I prayed that I wouldn’t pray

Or genuflect to either.

And I prayed that I would keep her.

 

And I prayed that God himself

Would kneel

And Satan lick my being,

And I was Omega Point Itself and knew Christ

And knew his mother

And wept to see and was seeing.

 

And brought my father news

Of my wounded soul

And my broken world and my wild purity,

And can only speculate

That He wept

And was overcome by the surety.

 

 

iv

 

 

Though he could not speak nor even ask

For death, nor ease his ending,

He went nonetheless

With the dignity God lent him.

 

No one who knew that man at 87

Could fault the soul that preceded him,

Nor take his dying lightly

Or his living, or what he had given them.

 

 

v     

 

 

And every God I kissed

Or suckled into life

Was my father,

My wife was every demon.

And I seldom knew the taste of flesh

But knew the semen.

 

And I never found his heartache

Nor saw him weep,

For all weeping was a rumor,

And if cancer was Jehovah God

My father

Was a tumor.

 

Nor did that man kneel to me.

His knees were never bent.

And I’d have had his soul on fire

Just to borrow

Some small moment in his smile,

But the smile was rent

 

By Priests Professors, Pundits

In a tiny cell.

And there was room for death alone

In that fortress

Called his being.

And I ran out of paradise and comfort and seeing.

 

And I ran toward his arms,

And he turned aside,

And the silhouette was hell

And suicide.

Till God Jehovah learned of humility

From his son’s pride.

 

Till God stepped down from the Cross

Where his son was martyred

And carted toward a face

And buried deep

In a constant wife

And a constant mercy and a constant grace.

 

 

vi    

 

 

For he was loved by son, by daughters,

By wife, by stranger,

And those who knew him even casually knew

His soul was in no danger.

 

That he would live on in many,

That he would reap what he had sowed,

And there was none that he had touched

Could say he owed

 

Him nothing, not the slightest taste

Of grace, for there was kindness in him

And a mercy they could trace

In what he’d given.

 

 

vii 

 

 

The wedge was always in my heart.

There is really nowhere to start.

Born south of State College in Juniata County,

A field stone lodging—the account he

Gave was scanty,

A level up from poor white, no shanty,

And some hundred acres rich

Of stony field and trees, an itch

For something better,

And he met her

At a summer dance, the loveliest girl

He’d dreamed about even, the summer haze, a whirl

Of mystery about her

In the linen frock, so pure he couldn’t doubt her

Innocence even as she danced

With the wealthier bucks, equally entranced,

And hoping—that much in common—

To marry her fragile beauty, which was gone in

Just six years,

As long as they took for 3 children, a small frame house,

And he hard at work on the language of his spouse,

A proper mode of conversation,

Grammatically suiting his situation,

Principal of a small town system,

While the War came and went and missed him.

And the degrees were won

And the depression long overcome

And the promotions coming

(Some came running),

Herr District Superintendent of the Corry schools,

But a good sort really, lacking the genuine tools

For the larger position he finally secured,

A larger town, towns, inured

To little men and their ambition,

Hard work, long hours and contrition,

Till he won their hearts and lost his wife’s

And his youngest daughter’s and his life’s

Great love, a son who would disappoint him,

But he worked on

And even worked at play—the notion

Never troubled his earnest nature,

Accustomed by now to personal perfection,

And holding it above even his family’s affection,

Or their small concerns,

For the work consumed him, and who yearns

For verity when there is surety,

A sumptuous house in the right neighborhood,

A flawless reputation in the eyes of the good

And even the less good,

Seldom misunderstood

Except by his own children

Or a wife who has learned silence, moldering

Resentment he took as simply frigidity

And something to expect from such purity

As he saw in her eyes those long years past

(Though the girl was far above his caste)

When he knew he would have her, simply knew,

And bided his time and his point of view?

 

He went on.  There was no choice.

The direction was secure.  He had found his voice.

But often missed a field-stone house

And autumns hunting grouse

Or rabbits up into the orchard,

Where he took his son when the son seemed tortured,

And walked for miles up into timber

And sat quiet for squirrels, limber

As the buck that courted a Perry County maid.

This much to his credit—he never betrayed

Her in the usual sense,

Which to his mind gave the whole affair credence,

For there was the town’s respect

And his own indifference,

And he was loved and he was loved widely

And never knew the difference.

The eldest daughter to nursing school,

Then Juniata College, Penn, he cool

To her momentary liaison with a man below her class,

And breaking it off though she clung fast

To the memory even through another LEGITIMATE affair

Again beneath her, though decades later,

Her beauty behind her,

Neither much of a find or

In a position to choose.

The younger, Nancy, off to college and a broken heart

As well, though landing better, the start

Of what became marriage,

And the proverbial “horse and carriage”

And two children as well

And her own private hell.

The son had his own moments,

At the State University, his own torments,

Graduating from his fraternity

To the U.S. Army artillery

A year short of graduation,

The local gossips’ sensation,

Enlisting for Germany

And shortly sodomy

But rescued shortly

By a girl as innocent as his mother, an edge soon portly

And with child,

And a caste beneath his mother’s wild-

est expectations,

Enduring a foreign language, customs, celebrations,

A husband torn by faces in the street

Of either gender and by his own self-loathing, discrete-

ly pursuing advanced degrees

In literature and emotional disease

Till he found his way to 1969

And the state asylum, out in time

To pick up the second semester where he taught

But poorly instructed, caught

In the same devastations,

The darkest conceivable pit where one could blunder

To plummet 10 long billion cubits under

And claw for 14 years his way toward light

Where his father waited, anguished by the sight

Of so much promise fouled and laid to waste,

And all his trophies, honors, accolades erased

By his only son, the tremors lifting a cup,

Reduced to manual labor and the long road up

To minimal respectability,

And though searching his soul for his own responsibility,

He lay awake nights for months, years,

Calling into question every turn HE’D taken, fears

Of what more might strike his home,

His wife, ambition,

His son, his daughters, and his daughter’s children.

He could lay the blame nowhere convenient

And did only what was decent

And saved the son’s daughter from the same condition,

And gave the young girl hope and ambition,

And saw her through the hells she too endured

Until her promise was assured,

And remarked one evening at the grandchild’s visit,

“Amazing how well your father’s doing, isn’t it?”

And his Stephanie replied, earnest as they bred her,

“Oh Dad?  We both grew up together.”

 

And so the FAMILY grew some four generations,

And healed and grew and overcame limitations

Which would secure the anguish of ANY family,

All that weighed on him as some huge mockery,

And grandfather father mother daughter son, grandson,

And finally, at long last, great granddaughter, son,

And his heart, the patriarch, long retired, began,

Had begun to lift and in time was even light as human’d

Ever be or understand,

And this great grace of bounty was never planned

In anyone’s mind, by their own accounting,

Their whole perspective lifted, mounting,

And when he saw at last there was nothing HE had done

Or anyone,

That all was one

Grand purpose in the innocence of the newest generation,

He knew it had come

Full circle and again begun.

And he left off there, secure in what they’d won.

 

Curious enough, the dying scarcely mattered.

He was a very old man, and his thoughts were scattered.

But bright and clear enough to know his son a poet.

And to know his love and to love and show it.

And to bless each instant of his difficult life.

And to cherish each instant of his difficult life.

 

 

viii

 

 

For what he touched he healed,

What he saw in them was best,

And seeing and loving in that difficult fashion

Sets this father’s son at rest.                                        1994