for my father
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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-
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
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.
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