Father’s Day 2018
Instructions for a Poem with Grief
Write an elegy:
Transmute should have been into fact.
Admit only there was a slight unraveling.
If you are feathered with need or hunger become another type of daughter.
Plot every word your father has said to you onto the map of your body till language
secret as the way your father must have loved you is revealed.
Do not make holding your father’s hand a sacrament.
Do not try to hug your father at long last.
Be a good daughter.
Forgive your father’s sins.
Accept your hunger.
Weeks before any warm weather, I stamped on ice patches,
and kicked at crusty snow lodged in every hard-to-reach place:
our family car’s tires, the front porch railings, even the soles
of my father’s steel-toed boots left on the back steps overnight.
I flung snowballs at icicles that dangled from the roof,
and listened to their dull clatter when they hit the ground.
Plastic gutters drooped and bent under the weight of the cold.
Every breath I took was white, every shiver, a tremor.
Still, going inside was no warmer. With a furnace
that spewed high heating bills with little heat, and a strike
looming at my father’s factory, I expected to see pale fog
from my parents when they spoke, in trembled tones,
just slight of any kind of anger. It was better outside,
where I wandered to Benson Pond. Frozen over,
the winter-dry weeds, brittle and still, didn’t even rustle.
Digging through the snow, I found a flat rock that fit
into the palm of my hand. When I threw it, I knew
that in spite of its lift and spin through the air,
it wouldn’t skip over the pond’s cold surface.
I just wanted something, anything, to crack.
How to Play Backgammon
First, you must slip your fingers
into the crack of time between
your father arriving home from work
and the newspaper snapping into place
in front of him in his easy chair.
Pry that crack open by standing lop-
sided, the heft of the leather case
already in your small hands. Promise him
you won’t cry when he beats you.
While he unfolds the game onto the ugly
Naugahyde playing field of the footstool,
fetch your tiny wooden rocker, pull it up
close, mirror his vigilant stance,
fierce strategist in miniature.
Work to bring your pieces home
around the board, listen to their soft-shoe
as they slide, revel in that sharp click
when they land with other discs, safe.
Since you and odds haven’t danced together
yet, you don’t know the steps of safe bet
like you will someday, you will leave blots,
those haphazard moves that strand your pieces
solo, waiting to be swept in on.
Your father will sweep in on them,
knocking them to the limbo of the center rail.
Learn now to pray for fate’s combos to grant
you reentries, jagged new beginnings.
Study patience as your careful opponent counts,
mutters, calculates every move. Despite your
fidgets, your sighs, someday you will be
grateful to know how to hold options to the light,
how to study them from every crooked angle.
Don’t ever take your fingers away from a play
if you’re not sure. There are no do-overs here.
Try not to hear your mother chime in from
the kitchen, pressing him for lenience.
His reply over the persistent thud of his last
pieces settling into home: She won’t learn
that way. Your sprawled pieces will double
and blur on the now monochrome board
as you quietly break your promise.
The first knot his father taught
him held a mattress to the top
of the car. This is a Trucker’s Hitch,
the old man said, looping the rope
in and out of itself as though fastening
large things to small places
was easy. Lord knew, Henry
had never had any luck keeping
beds and whatnot from sliding
off the rails. The next knot
was a Figure Eight.
Again, his father said, a thousand
times over. This one came undone so easily,
Henry didn’t see the point.
The Tautline Hitch at least made sense—
his tent’s tension kept it strong,
even in the rain. Even when he heard
his father had cancer. A year after
that, they used Two Half Hitches
the night the tree came down
next to the house. They dragged
that log a thousand yards, it seemed,
though Henry let his father
do the tying of knots. In the rain,
the wet rope looked like a snake and bit
just as quick. Thunder and darkness
make everything feel impossible,
but even so, Henry didn’t know
that damned tree would be the last
wild thing his father ever knotted tame.
When the old man died, Henry tried
a Bowline Hitch to secure the tarp
over the mounded ground near
the gravestone, but rescue
had never been his strength.
Some things can’t be saved,
his father once said,
and so Henry never did learn
how to knot it right.