Acceptance

It was only to be expected, I guess.  When I was young, I felt affronted by the prospect of death; as I age, death seems , while still frightening, increasingly natural.

Death’s Blue-Eyed Boy

My father was certain
What would happen.”Like snuffing out a candle,” he’d say.
“Like turning out all the lights in the world at once.”

I have a different take on death:
I think I’ll pass
Into an alternate universe
Where I’ll get another chance
To do it right.

 

Why I Love Darkness

A short while ago,  I promised deeper poems.  What follows is a second poem about my mother and what it was like when alcohol took over her life.   It is also about my relationship with my father, but more on that later…

 

Why I Love Darkness

Memories
Are not backlit;
Like fretful flies,
They dodge and flit,
Before they settle in the mind.

Memories
Are not a choice;
Like poetry,
They give a voice
To wounds that fester and endure.

1960:
Standing on the lawn that morning,
The grass I mowed and left behind,
The little swathes I failed to cut.

Our living room:
My father sleeping by the fire.
Ten o’clock, a ringing phone,
Stunned surprise.

The kitchen, by the phone:
My father’s eyes,
Beggar’s eyes.
Get dressed, he says;
Just go next door.

Our neighbor’s house:
My mother, barely clothed,
Sitting on the neighbor’s chair,
Chatting like a party host.

Our front lawn:
Supporting her,
Her feet as useless
As her brain.
Falling halfway,
Coming up covered
With brownish blades.

In the hallway:
My father standing silently,
My mother comatose,
My sister crying softly.

Our living room:
The dirty rug.
The dying fire.
The ashtray with its sickly smell.
I stand alone.
After a while,
I go round
And pull down every shade.

My Introduction to Politics – Part One

I don’t remember not being able to read.   I do have a clear memory ( I was two or three) of being lifted up and placed in the center of a big bed — covered in one of those old-fashioned bedspreads with raised embroidery.   My father surrounded me with what seemed like a sea of comic books and told me to learn to read them.

And learn I did. I’m not sure how I did it — I have no memory of anyone sounding out letters for me.  I could tell you that I seem to remember words being spelled out for me, but I can’t be sure it isn’t an invented memory, created as I try to puzzle out this question…in any event , it doesn’t have the same clarity in my mind as the being placed on the bed memory.   My best guess is that, with help from my parents, I matched the pictures to the words.

Flash forward a few years.  It’s 1950, and I’m in New Orleans on a  trolley with my father.  he’s taking me to a drugstore near the Tulane University campus, where he’s a graduate student in mathematics.  I’ve received a few dollars for my sixth birthday, and I’m to be allowed to spend it on comic books — Donald Duck and Little Lulu are my favorites.  We get off the trolley after a short ride, and I’m left by myself for a while to look through the comic books — I call them “funny books”, like everyone else in that part of the world at the time.   My eye is caught by something anomalous sitting in the nearby magazine racks, along with Time and Life, and The Saturday Evening Post.

It’s a strange little book, shaped like one of today’s paperbacks, entitled “POGO” with a drawing of a winsome possum on the cover.  When I opened it up, it was filled with comic strips organized into stories that seemed to have more of a point than I was used to in the Sunday comics, home to Prince Valiant (boring) and Li’l Abner (often funny, but also often boorish – not that i knew what boorish meant in those days).  Howland Owl, Albert the Alligator and Pogo the Possum seemed much more, well , human, than Scrooge Mc Duck.    Then there was Wile E. Coyote.  Even at the age of six, I could tell that there was something wrong with the way he wanted to run the swamp.  It would be a few years before i realized that he looked just like  Senator Joe McCarthy…

(To be continued)

Is Your Mother Home?

In 1952, my family moved to the upper floor of a house at 1412 North St in Beaumont, Texas. As was common in Gulf Coast homes of the period, the house had ceiling fans in every room (except the bathroom), and a screened-in sleeping porch at the front. My four-year-old sister and I were given beds at either end of porch, and our parents had a bedroom at the back. It wasn’t much, but it was all a Professor of Mathematics with a family could afford in those days.  Almost every night, after my sister was asleep, and I was tucked in for the night, my mother used to come, and sit on my bed, and sing to me.

Her singing set off a complicated set of reactions in me. I liked the attention, but even as a child I could tell there was something wrong. Part of it was that she couldn’t carry a tune, but there was something else, an odd sensation that she was not really in the same room as me.It was many years before I realized that she was drunk.

My mother was many things: a talented actress who could command an audience even in minor roles, a splendid card player who was also the best chess player in our family, and a hopeless alcoholic who gave herself over completely to the bottle as she entered middle age. The following poem is about this last aspect of her character, but my memories of her better side linger as well.

 

“Is your Mother home?”−
I want to please -− always, always.
So I agree to look.

My Mother’s bedroom door is open wide;
From the hallway,
I see her asleep upon her bed,
Her hair and clothes in disarray.

I step inside and glance around –
An ashtray with a butt still smoldering,
Empty wine bottles lined up neatly on the bedside table,
An alarm clock ticking mercilessly.

I sigh, and breathe the smoke-stale air.
Outside, a branch scrapes against her window.
I find it comforting.

For a while, I listen to her gentle snores.
Then I return to my Mother’s bridge class−
Four bewildered women
Standing by the oil stains in the carport.

“She’s not feeling well,” I tell them with a grunt,
And close the door firmly, to their dismay.

I am only fourteen;
They will forgive me.

Going Deeper

It has been a while since I’ve published a poem on this blog, and there is a reason.   I’ve been preparing myself to write about more serious personal issues.

About a year ago, I had a profound, life-changing experience. I went on a two-day retreat in which I did nothing but eat, sleep, and read and reflect on my friend Cathy Wild’s forthcoming book − Wild Ideas: Creativity from the Inside Out

For years, I had been aware of a significant weakness in all my creative endeavors: an inability to face directly the frightening memories that shaped my childhood and young adulthood. As a result, almost everything serious that I wrote – especially my one novel and most of my short stories − seemed incomplete, as though I always chose to leave the wrong things out.

As I read Cathy’s book of wise guidance and personal insight, I experienced something I had never experienced before – a conversion, a blossoming of faith. I finally accepted that my deepest secrets, secrets I used to hide, were a source of creative power. And in accepting that, I accepted myself.

In the near future, I will post a poem I’ve written about one of those deep secrets – my mother’s alcoholism.   More work about that and other secrets will follow.

 

On The Satisfactions Of Verse

My late wife used to describe me as a combination of a poet and an engineer.   She was right.  Sometimes, for me, the sense of having created art is the primary motivation; and sometimes, the process of writing a poem has its own rewards; its own satisfactions; its own frustrations.

For example, I imagined the following little verse as a story poem — the protagonist visits his aged parents in order to convince them to move to some sort of care facility.   At the time I wrote the first version, some years ago, i created a rough draft, divided into stanzas  that told the basic story.   Then I added a new challenge — a complicated rhyme scheme.  I added the complication for two reasons, one good and one bad.  The good reason was that I felt that by making the rhyme scheme complicated I would disguise the fact that the rhymes existed — always my ideal when i was using rhymed verse to convey an idea, a message, or a strong emotion.  The bad reason was that, as often happens to me, the technical challenge got in the way of the story I was trying to tell, and I ended up with a satisfying rhyme scheme, but a muddied story.

The version that follows is the usual compromise; the story I was trying to tell is much clearer, but I had to give up some of my favorite lines., and the rhyme scheme is simpler and more obvious.

Tired and frail, the old house stood,
With termites eating at the wood.
I walked through the door.

Too well I remember my sense of despair
On seeing them still living there,
Bereft, bewildered, and ignored.
I had come to ask them to move out,
The proper thing to do, no doubt.
Did I want to succeed?

I sat, and listened to the past.
Agreed, that it had past too fast
— My obligatory deed.

Age resembles poverty —
A kind of blameless misery
Insufficiently deplored.

Because my aged parents couldn’t cope,
My talk of care homes gave them hope.
They walked through the door.