Parents are not easy to write about; we seem to go too far one way or the other. It is hard to be at a distance from them, to be objective and, yet, not leave out our feelings for them. The poems in this section succeed in talking about parents in a number of ways.
WE CHOOSE OUR PARENTS
I'd liked one couple in La Paz
but they were too short.
There was another outside Spokane
selling bait but they were too loud or too
smart or something. I don’t remember.
With the pair I chose I
liked the way his arms fit
behind hers at the sink.
That was part of it. I liked
that he stammered and how she
was proud when he watched stars
and made notes at his desk.
She could help him back to Earth.
But the night I chose this pair
there'd been words said.
There'd been a silence and more words
and a long pause and some shouting and I knew
how he wanted to sit down—or
they both did—and wouldn't.
There was a way she’d have her mouth
and a way he’d walk around to keep
from crying. Then, later
they'd been quiet a while when
there was a telephone call,
and when my father hung up my mother
switched the radio on by the stove.
It could have been Armstrong or Sinatra or
Dorsey, I don’t know. But
I remember how my
father asked her, softly and then
even again, if she’d possibly dance
just one and allowed as how
he himself wouldn’t mind.
Maybe a new idea, but think about choosing your parents. You might give a thought to other parents you might have chosen, but then come back to describing something you have seen your parents do that explains why, if you had had a choice, you might have chosen them.
FOR A FIVE-YEAR OLD
A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.
I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another,
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
And we are kind to snails.
Poems 1960-2000 (Bloodaxe Books,2000) www.bloodaxebooks.com
A BILL TO MY FATHER
I am typing up bills for a firm to be sent to their clients.
It occurs to me that firms are sending bills to my father
Who has that way an identity I do not often realize.
He is a person who buys, owes, and pays,
Not Papa like he is to me.
His creditors reproach him for not paying on time
With a bill marked, "Please Remit."
I reproach him for never having showed his love for me
But only his disapproval.
He has a debt to me too
Although I have long since ceased asking him to come across;
But in this impersonal world of business
He can be communicated with;
With absolute assurance of being paid
The boss writes, "Send me my money"
And my father sends it.
POEM FOR MY MOTHER
Remember when I draped
the ruffled cotton cape
around your shoulders,
turned off the lights
and stood behind your chair,
brushing, brushing your hair.
The friction of the brush
in the dry air
of that small inland town
created stars that flew
as if God himself was there
in the small space
between my hand and your hair.
Now we live on separate coasts
of a foreign country.
A continent stretches between us.
You write of your illness,
your fear of blindness.
You say you wake afraid
to open your eyes.
Mother, if some morning
you open your eyes to see
daylight as a dark room around you,
I will drape a ruffled cotton cape
around your shoulders
and stand behind your chair,
brushing the stars out of your hair.
Grooming is an important part of family life for us humans just as it is for other animals. Brushing hair, giving perms, doing nails, and there are many other quiet and intimate things members of a family do for each other. Think of such things you have done with a member of your family and make a poem of one of them. Siv Cedering makes a stanza of each sentence, except for the third stanza which is two sentences. The first two stanzas are then; the next one is now, and the third is if and the future. See if you can use this pattern in your poem.
Crab apple jelly
Every year you said it wasn’t worth the trouble—
you’d better things to do with your time—
and it made you furious when the jars
were sold at the church fête
for less than the cost of sugar.
And every year you drove into the lanes
around Calverton to search
for the wild trees whose apples
looked as red and as sweet as cherries,
and tasted sharper than gooseberries.
You cooked them in the wide copper pan
Grandma brought with her from Wigan,
smashing them against the sides
with a long wooden spoon to split
the skins, straining the pulp
through an old muslin nappy.
It hung for days, tied with string
to the kitchen steps, dripping
into a bowl on the floor—
a head in a bag, a pouch
of sourness, of all that went wrong
in that house of women. The last drops
you wrung out with your hands;
then, closing doors and windows
to shut out the clamouring wasps,
you boiled up the juice with sugar,
dribbling the syrup onto a cold plate
until it set to a glaze
filling the heated jars.
When they were cool
you held one up to the light
to see if the jelly had cleared.
Oh, Mummy, it was as clear and shining
as stained glass and the color of fire.
Think of a way your mother provided for the family. Tell of it, getting the details that show her pride in her work, and leave to implication how her pride and its values were passed on to you.
THAT DARK OTHER MOUNTAIN
My father could go down a mountain faster than I
Though I was the first one up.
Legs braced or with quick steps he slid
the gravel slopes
Where I picked cautious footholds.
Black, Iron, Eagle, Doublehead, Chocorua,
Wildcat and Carter Dome--
He beat me down them all. And that last
And that dark other mountain.
C. G. Hanzlicek
He leadeth me beside the still waters. . .
I remember that,
So many times, him holding the minnow bucket,
Leading me down the dock
To a boat whose prow lifted and sank
In the wake
From some idiot water skier.
Sputter of motor,
Blue oil slick--
I don't know a more beautiful blue--
Deepest cobalt, spreading in our own small wake.
Drifting in lily pads,
We took northern pike, crappie,
Hated perch, always small and too bony
And full of worms, they said,
Whatever came our way,
Still bobbing among the power boats,
Then the lake's surface
Went from yellow to tangerine
To a lucky penny,
And we were alone there,
Ringed by a stillness of black trees.
I'd like to tell you
We opened out of ourselves
But, as I try to bring it back,
I see us losing
Each other's faces in silence,
But in a silence that was not a loss.
We were best at saying
Nothing, lost in a quietude
Pure as cobalt.
Sometimes the motor wasn't started again:
The fish on the stringer,
Bumping the side of the boat,
Perch and dogfish,
To be buried in the garden,
To feed roots white as their flesh,
Pike and crappie
For the table,
His hands, my hands,
Then both of us pulling our hands
To his chest, my chest,
Under the opening stars.
Alone with your father, or your mother. The details you remember because of your sense of the two of your being the only ones there.
Greasy smoke from the stack
at the mill, rusty chainlink.
Sidewalks broken. Gates Guards.
And whenever I pedaled by,
I'd spit my wad of baseball gum
at the streaked and cob-webbed office windows.
In the log yards and saw sheds,
fathers bartered themselves
then banged home drunk nights
so afraid of worthlessness
they'd smash windows,
Not my father.
He was a union man, elected
at the company picnic
when called on to break apart
of his brawling, beer-bellied brethren.
And I'd hold my gut
at the sideline, knowing my dad
inevitably took his blows.
He maybe wanted to teach his son
some way other than cut lips,
He lived and died in that mill.
And never hit no one
hard as most deserved it.
A time when you stuck up for your father--or mother. There is little or nothing a child can do--spit gum at the office windows? Write a poem that tells what happened to your parent, and the reader will understand your feeling.
We went to either the Canton Grill
or the Chinese Village, both of them
on Eighty-second among the car lots
and discount stores and small nests
of people waiting hopelessly
for the bus. I preferred the Canton
for its black and bright red sign
with the dragon leaping out of it
and sneezing little pillows of smoke.
And inside, the beautiful green
half-shell booths, glittery brass encrusted
lamps swinging above them._
What would I have?
Sweet and sour?
Chow mein with little wagon wheel- shaped
slices of okra and those crinkly noodles
my father called deep fried worms?
Among such succulence, what did it matter?
We could eat 'til we were glad and full, the whole
family sighing with the pleasure of it.
And then the teal
All of this for about six bucks, total,
my father, for that once-in-a-while, feeling
flush in the glow of our happy faces
and asking me, "How you doing, son?"
Fine, Dad. Great, really, in the light of that place, almost tasting
the salt and bean paste and molasses, nearly
hearing the sound of the car door
opening before we climbed in together
and drove and drove,
though we hadn't far to go.
Dinner out. It is an occasion, especially if it doesn’t happen very often. Especially if the whole family is there. Especially if there are good memories about the place and the food. But, then, it isn’t always like that either.
Lifting, both hands pulling whitely.
How did Hoppy do it one-handed every Saturday?
Grandpa cocks it: tic tic.
Blinking like a startled lizard
in some green rain cobweb swamp
I squeeze, and shake, and squeeze.
I am deaf, floating on my skinny back
in choking swirls of bark and burnt powder.
". . . it it."
I'm up on one elbow, blurring.
Dad's there, by the stump, laughing.
"Be goddamned, he hit it."
And as he points out the neat, off-center hole,
as he laughs the very last laugh I remember him laughing,
I brush my watery eyes, and breathe.
Write a poem about a time your father or your mother laughed at something you did, laughed out of sheer enjoyment of you.
There was something he'd done:
left the hose on or let
the dog out or
strewn his clothes around.
I didn't know.
What happened afterward
I didn't understand enough to mention
and it would have been stupid besides.
We were twelve
and Peter and I were outside
and Peter's father
opened the porch screen door
and stood there facing the yard.
Ray's face was red and he told Peter,
Come over here.
So my friend walked over
and he caught some hell, not a lot
but enough. I don't know
where my parents were
but our green Dodge was parked
by Peter's family's garage and I climbed
on the hood to see the way Ray's lecture ended.
There was, How could you, and, Why don't you,
and, Sorry, Peter said and then a pause and Ray
took a seat on the steps. Then
Peter smiled and Ray leaned just forward
and held him a moment, and gently,
like their lives depended on it.
Our friends have parents too. Sometimes we see something happen between them and their parents, and it makes an impression. Usually we didn’t understand, but what happened stayed with us. We may not understand even today, and making a poem of it may be as close to understanding as we can come.
MEN AND BOYS
My boy has reached that age
when he wants to do the driving.
Near noon, as we go home
with a load of bales,
he drives the tractor, and I stand
on the drawbar behind him.
At a corner on the gravel road,
we meet a neighbor, a passenger
like me, his boy behind the wheel,
and we stop to talk.
While the tractors idle
and we discuss the moisture level
in alfalfa bales, I notice the boys
are taking turns making little pulls
on the throttles, revving the motors.
That power in their hands, they can't
get over it, passing sly smiles
between each other.
My neighbor takes a sideways look
at what the boys are doing,
but we keep talking about hay,
pretending not to notice
so we don't have to tell them
to knock it off.
It’s new. Driving. It goes to your head. You’ll outgrow the feeling. A parent remembers what it was like and doesn’t interfere. If it happened to you, write a poem about it.
THE DIRTY-BILLED FREEZE FOOTY
Remember that Saturday morning
Mother forgot the word gull?
We were all awake but still in bed
and she called out, "Hey kids!
What's the name of that bird that eats garbage
and stands around in cold water on the beach?"
And you, the quick one, the youngest daughter
piped right back: "A dirty-billed freeze footy!"
And she laughed till she was weak,
until it hurt her. And you had done it:
reduced our queen to warm and helpless rubble.
And the rest of the day, baking or cleaning
or washing our hair until it squeaked,
whenever she caught sight of you
it would start all over again.
Little kids can say very funny and imaginative things. Write a poem about something funny a child in your family said and a parent's reaction to it.
With one exception Hemschemeyer has put her poem into couplets. Do you see why she did? Can you make it to your advantage to use couplets?
The first time I saw a man sew anything,
it was my father patching binder canvas.
He took good care of such things.
On his chair at the kitchen table
he draped the course cloth (Ma made him
bang the dust out before bringing it in)
over his knees like a skirt. Beside him,
an oily box kept on the Bible shelf--
a shoemaker's kit with awls, needles,
line tough enough to reel in salmon--
held his tools. Ripe, grainy smells
filled the kitchen. Pa sat up
late, bent to his work, stitching on
bright new patches, binding frayed edges,
his head heavy as oats in the dewy field.
We lugged the dark canvas out next morning,
careful not to drag it in the damp grass,
and spread it for an apron back of the sickle bar.
After threshing, we rolled the parched cloth,
packed it under the rafters in a dry shed,
keeping in mind to take good care. And now,
now in a strange city or along some lakeshore,
I still hear the thrum of canvas, the swish
of oat stems, a bundling clatter of gears--
shocks of harvest in a far, golden field.
Write a poem about some work you watched your father do, maybe putting in spark plugs, or making a cabinet, whatever.
BACK TO BACK
Debra Kang Dean
At sixteen my mother had been a swimmer.
I have seen a picture of her
poised at the edge of the pool, knees bent,
hands on knees, and smiling with her teammates.
My aunt once said back then she swam
as gracefully as Esther Williams.
But that is not how I remember her.
It is when I am sixteen and a runner
and am forever wanting to stand against her,
back to back, to see who's taller;
however much I stretch I still come up
an inch short. I've called her up
to have her drive me home from practice.
We ride home in utter silence
after my curt "thanks" and her nod,
not for a lack of feeling, but for want of words.
Following her in, cleats slung over my shoulder,
I tell her to wait, I'll help her.
Already she's at the sink, peeling potatoes
and humming, one foot lifted like a flamingo.
"not for a lack of feeling, but for want of words." Think back to one of those times and try to get into a poem what wasn't said--not by stating it, but by implication..
TO A DAUGHTER LEAVING HOME
When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
for your life, screaming
the hair flapping
behind you like a
Write a poem about the first time you rode a bike, but from your point of view.
from WATCHING WOMEN WITH CHILDREN
Cleaning the offices
her stern legs
and tired arms men stand around
in their shoes
watching tightly guilty.
She met him from school
by the wire mesh gate.
He ran out, the last child.
“I wet my pants”—he cried so hard.
Picked him up, the cold air and his wounds
whipping her heart.
Assume something terrible (terrible to a child) has happened to you at school. Write a poem from the point of view of your mother. Give hints of what her life was like and, then, how she felt when she found out about what happened to you.
for my daughter Sara Marie
There was a time her door was never closed.
Her music box played “Für Elise” in plinks.
Her crib new-bought—I drew her sleeping there.
The little drawing sits beside my chair.
These days, she ornaments her hands with rings.
She’s seventeen. Her door is one I knock.
There was a time I daily brushed her hair
By window light—I bathed her, in the sink
In sunny water, in the kitchen, there.
I’ve bought her several thousand things to wear,
And now this boy buys her silver rings.
He goes inside her room and shuts the door.
Those days, to rock her was a form of prayer.
She’d gaze at me, and blink, and I would sing
Of bees and horses, in the pasture, there.
The drawing sits as still as nap-time air—
Her curled-up hand—that precious line, her cheek…
Next year her door will stand, again, ajar
But she herself will not be living there.
Imagine you are the parent. The door is closed. What are your thoughts? Write a poem using your imagined thoughts.
for a daughter, eighteen
Dear child, first-born, what I could give outright
I've given--now there is only a father's wishing.
What can I hang around your neck for magic,
or smuggle in your pocket? I would draw
you a contour map of the territory ahead
but in truth it could only show you X--you are here.
The rest would be your Terra Incognita.
Years ago, in the trees beside a mountain lake
after bedtime, your mother and I sat up
together, reading the fire. Each flame, leaping,
seemed a stroke of the future, a signal for us
for you asleep in your nest at the rim of firelight
where great jagged shadows danced like knives.
We faced our ignorance until the fire was ash.
Once, in the first transports of adolescence,
you wandered over the hills behind the Sky Ranch,
remember? Suddenly beyond your feet
the country plunged away to utter strangeness,
and you were lost. The south wind carried your cries
like birdsong. At last I found you quiet on a stone,
your eyes full of the world we do not own.
Now it is all before you--wonderful
beyond a father's bedtime reckoning,
beyond his fears. What is it love must say?
Go forth to the fullness of your being: may
a merry kindness look you in the face.
Where home was, may your travels bring
you to a fellowship of open hearts.
So love must change our parts, my child no longer
child. I stand rehearsing at the door,
and think how once at bedtime, a dozen years
ago, I taught you how to cross your wrists
in the bright lamp-light, and link your thumbs, so,
and there on the wall a great bird arose
and soared on shadow wings, to the wonderment of all.
Soon you will be eighteen, "the child no longer child," heading off into your own Terra Incognita. Imagine yourself to have arrived at that time, and write a letter to your mother or father, reminding him/her of things you did and saying what you wish for him/her.
BALLAD OF BIRMINGHAM
(On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)
"Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?"
"No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren't good for a little child."
"But, mother, I won't be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free."
"No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children's choir."
She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.
The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.
For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.
She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
"O, here's the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?"
Seventeen, no great event
He says. He glides past us
With undisturbed intent.
He would photograph well
Easing into the jeep
Whose military shell
He painted red to cover
The old green wounds,
That war long over.
This boy, this innocence,
Brown, summer muscle
Flexed without pretense.
There are no mysteries
For him. The winter branch
Always leafs into light.
His days shine with chance.
I follow his car in mine.
Dust rises from our road.
Three months without rain,
Already some of the pines
I planted a year ago
Are dead. When we reach
The highway, we go
Apart. Always the wrong time
To tell my son what I mean.
He doesn't see my wave.
When I was seventeen
I didn't look back either.
You are going someplace, leaving your father or mother behind. Of course, you don't wave. Write a poem about it from the point of view of your father or mother.
EPIGRAMS: ON MY FIRST SON
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.
Seven years tho' wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say, "Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry."
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.