My father, dying

In this month’s Poetry magazine, a poem by Kevin Young, one of my favorite poets, caught me by surprise. Sometimes that happens, that twist, that leap, that chill of meaning that is both of the work and not of the work. I’m not sure how to write about this.

You can read the poem, “Pietà” by Kevin Young online here where a blogger has posted the poem. (Note: The poem is not centered in the published version. Subject for another day: centered poetry, pet peeve.)

Who is this “I” in the poem, and who is this “him”? I wondered. The title, Pietà—pity—suggests all those images of Mary cradling the body of her dead son. Whoever the sought-for “him” is, he can’t be found in heaven (“too uppity” and “not enough // music, or dark dirt”), nor in the earth. Death appears in the poem, a boy bounces a ball, and the speaker notices the delay of sound reaching him. Then Young ends: “Father, // find me when / you want. I’ll wait.” Prayer? Elegy? Father or father or both?

Last spring as my father was dying of cancer, I was reading poems, writing poems, drawn to poetry as a form of understanding, a way to process my conflicts and my grief. Poems I’d always loved and taught, from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” (his long elegiac sequence about the death of his dear friend) to Li-Young Lee’s stunning first book Rose, had new resonance for me. New pain, new forms of consolation.

Yes, sometimes this is what art does: offers consolation.

I’m not sure how to write about this. It feels, maybe, too personal.

I know I’m seeing dead fathers everywhere. My own keeps showing up in my dreams. I picked up a thin collection of new Scottish poetry when I was in Dublin in July, Intimate Expanses, and the first poem was Alastair Reid’s “My Father, Dying.” “The whole household is pending,” he writes. “I am not ready.” (I remember when the hospice nurse told us my father was on “the imminent list.”) The end of his father’s life, writes Reid, seems the beginning of something else: a “hesitant conversation / going on and on and on.”

In the July/August issue of Poetry, a poem by another favorite poet, Spencer Reece, “The Manhattan Project," a poem that ends, stunningly: “The quietness inside my father was building and would come to define him. I was wrong to judge it. Speak, Father, and I will listen. And if you do not speak, then I will listen to that.”

So I'm thinking about my father, I’m writing about my father. Here’s a draft:

Last Night

Last night, bright moon, dark trees lining each horizon,

armadillo digging up the flowerbed. The yucca’s last buds glow white.

Last night, a nightmare, lame as nightmares come, but

for all that, I woke up calling out for my father’s help. My mother

woke, her soft feet at the door.

Last night, she says, she heard voices, in the house, outside the window,

someone calling her name. It’s like that now.

Last night my dad asked how I got there,

sitting beside his bed, his head against the rail,

his soft focus stare. He says something else

I can’t quite hear, his quiet voice receding, as if

he’s elsewhere, another room. My mom says sometimes he waves

at someone, but no one’s there.

So I’m writing about and to my father. Not pleased with many of them, but writing. Maybe it’s a way to keep that “hesitant conversation” going. I am thinking about all the conversations I never had with him. I am listening to the silence. As I sit here at my desk, the dark shadow of a large hawk keeps crossing the backyard.


For those of you who are writing or have written about illness, USC Sumter is hosting a writing contest (essay and poetry). Download the information here. Deadline is September 16.