MAKING PEACE WITH MY FATHER
You could be dead by now.
How would I know?
Last time I saw you
was fifty-five years ago.
My first day of school.
Your last with us.
You’re the little man now, Paddy,
then got on a greyhound bus
in front of Tang’s Pagoda
as I watched the door close
on that fuselage without wings
as if the whale had just swallowed Jonah whole.
The last time I noticed we had the same eyes.
The end of your reign of terror.
As I remember you fifty-five years later
you were brutal, violent, cruel,
a con-man and a drunk.
You hurt people then laughed at their pain.
You were the lethal meltdown of a radioactive brain
that made the grass glow at night
from thousands of miles away
and poisoned the rain.
I went to jail with my mother to bail you out
more often than I was pushed into going to church.
And when you got out
you were always as angry as a killer bee
in the soggy autumn orchard of your hangover.
Life for you as it is for any coward
was one long complaint you took out on us.
My first seven years
I watched as many ambulances
take my shattered mother away for months
as many cop cars washing up on our doorstep
with all those messages in a bottle
that had your name on them
like a federal warrant for your arrest
as I recall the clinking horse-drawn milkwagons
with their coloured cardboard bottle caps
or the tinkling neighbourhood ice-cream trucks.
Remembering you now at this late date
is like fingering the fossils of a Tyrannosaurus Rex
and feeling the faint resonance
of your ferocity even yet
through my fingertips
like a warm-blooded mammal
in the menacing shadow of a reptilian law
whose last judgment was always a jugular in a jaw.
If you’re dead,
if you’re truly dead,
did you die alone?
Did anyone grieve?
Did you change over the years
and become a good man
as righteous as the stroke of midnight
and atone for anything
before you boarded the next bus for the abyss?
Was your last flashback of life
the sunami you drowned in
after your psychological fault lines
flintknapped an earthquake
that brought the whole planet down on us
everytime you barged through the door
back from the bar
and turned a home into an avalanche?
Did you remember your children?
Did you remember me?
Did you ever wonder
how I turned out without you?
Maybe I’m way too late for your funeral
and this wreath of blood and thorns I bring
to lay on your grave
like the bitter irony you fathered in me
is not a fitting obsequy for either of us
because maybe, possibly, improbably
as you aged like an acid
time defanged your thunder
like a white cottonmouth
and the moon took back its crescents
and the lightning began to make crutches of the trees
it used to split like cedar shakes
with double-bladed bolts of light
that scorched so much more
than they ever illuminated in the darkness they returned to.
As if the whole of the little earth I knew then,
my mother, me, my brother, my sisters
sported the wounds you gashed
on everyone’s heart and a skull
like chopping blocks
under your bloodied blunted war-ax.
For longer than autumn’s been keeping time now
with rosaries of geese in passage
like the secret names
of God on the run
for bouncing rubber cheques,
I have carried you around inside of me
like a chromosome in a coffin.
It’s a kind of genetic locket
I sometimes open
to remember you by
when I’m mythologizing my scars
like blackholes among the stars
or the empty eyesockets
on the wailing walls of the dice
you loaded like the prophetic skulls of a bad choice.
And I still don’t know if I’ve come
like an eviction notice
to this dismal place
to condemn you
or exorcise your ghost
I have despised you for so long within me
like the sloughed skin of a snakey oilslick,
the black blood of a haemmoraging eclipse
that covers everything like an executioner’s hood,
the birds, the sun, the sea,
every tarnished cell of me
in a darkness that won’t wash off.
Or maybe I’ve just shown up again
like Empedocles on Aetna
to jump into the collapsed caldera of your grave
like the last flower.
Ambiguous homage with seven kinds of meaning
to a spent volcano
buried in itself
that once knew how to preserve the dead
in all the twisted shapes of prolonged agony
that has characterized the living ever since.
Every day of my life
I have wanted to give you back your name
like a white cross on a black plague door
that isn’t me anymore
and never was.
Or maybe I should
jump down into your grave and say
Hey, Dad, isn’t this sad for you and me
this is the way we take leave of each other for good
like chainsaws snarling through the heartwood of the family tree?
Isn’t it just so incomparably sad
that a son being honest as a deathbed
with his father as he dies
over and over again in his imagination
as I do now here beside you
should lean over and whisper into his father’s ear
with a heavy heart that regrets it was ever born to mean it
Hey, Dad, I want you to know
when it’s my time to go
and I get to the other side
of all that was
and can be abandoned
time will heal everything
you did and didn’t do
and all these severed bloodlines
reach their final watershed,
all the weak threads
of what was unbound
like rain in the river
fall into the flowing
and be made whole as strong rope again,
and the eye that offended be plucked out
and an old fist be opened up like the new palm
of a better afterlife than the one we had here,
and reunited families everywhere
break bread together in love and laughter
and every father be a strong rafter
and every mother be a lamp in a tent
and a cool night wind
as intimate and near
as stars in a desert,
and every son
say farewell to his father
as I do now here beside you
on this re-useable illusion of a death bed
where I am trying so hard to listen
to the voices in my heart
instead of the wise-guys in my head:
You gave me these empty eyes.
My mother filled them with compassion.
May peace marrow your troubled bones at last
and God soften the stone
upon which you lay your head.
What has passed has passed
like a storm out over open water.
You were my father at noon.
I was your son at midnight.
You withdrew like a shadow
that dreaded the light.
May God grant you a deeper insight
into these lives
we pass along to one another
like candles in the doorway of a dark night
and the courage to see
when they’re blown out
and death comes to sever even this little thread
of earthbound lucidity
that exists like blood between you and me
why even if these eyes of yours you gave me
were washed up like the survivors of a shipwreck
on the eyelids of the same shores
we started out from together,
asked whose son I might be
and who among all the generations
of the unborn and unperishing gathered there
was the road that fathered my journey,
I would answer
my life was a river with only one bank
that flowed from a sea of shadows on the moon.
I would embrace my mother in tears
if I saw her standing there
for all the long, hard, humiliating years
she always sat on the edge of the bed
the last thing at night
before we fell asleep under her eyes
and quietly lowered herself down
like a ladder into a snakepit
so we could climb out
without getting bit by the same viper
that had struck her like black lightning
in the heel in an orchard in spring.
About you I wouldn’t say anything.
I’d swallow my voice like a sword.
I wouldn’t sacrifice a word
on the altar of the silence
that waited like a god
to hear himself named.
I’d shake my head.
I wouldn’t look for you among the dead.