All I Know About My Father

When someone asks Your father?
I conjure a blank, a void,
a vacant place at table, in heart,
a self-erasing memory.
Sometimes I envy poets
who sift from out their childhood days
a paradigm moment,
a passing of wisdom,
a graceless hug,
eye twinkle of reflected pride.
I try, and come up empty.

Once, in the living room,
he showed me places on a globe;
I glimpsed
in closely guarded scrapbook
a ruined, barbed-wire Europe
whose ovens had singed him.
He had a German medal.
Arbeit, it said.
He showed me the tanks,
the marching columns
in which he'd tramped,
GIs like chessmen
riding and walking
filling the map
to meet the Red chessmen,
pawns in the mine and yours
diplomacy of Yalta.
I still recall their farmboy faces,
the broken walls behind their pose.

Once we walked on a slag pile.
He hurled things angrily --
sticks, rocks and bottles -
into a quicksand pool.

I think he meant to tell me something:
There is a place that draws you to it.
There is a force that sucks you under.
There is a way to walk around it.

Days he kept books at the belching coke ovens,
debits and credits in the sulfurous air;
nights he played jazz at roadside taverns.
One night we even heard him on the radio.

I tried to play his clarinet -- just once.
He yanked it away.
Daily and nightly the man was there.
Thirteen years of a father
who wanted a room between himself and sons.
So this is all that I remember:
He was the voice who fought with my mother.
He slept on the couch, then in another house.

Years passed, birthdays and Christmases
unmarked and unremembered.
When I was seventeen he phoned the school,
said he would meet me at the top of the hill.

I walked there, wondering
what we might have to say,
what new beginnings--

Sign this, he said.
What is it?
A policy. Insurance we had
on you and your brother.
I'd like to cash it in.

I signed. The car sped off.
I never told anyone.

When someone asks Your father?
I shrug. He is an empty space,
a vacuum where no bird can fly,
a moon with no planet,
an empty galaxy
where gravity repels
and dark suns hoard their light.

Note: This poem, although written in 1993, was just published for the first time in 2011 in the Longman textbook, Literature and Gender.

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