Had I known where it was headed, I might not have begun where I did.
The lines were:
and my father
one hand raised
the hot blades
of the sun
that split him wide
and in returning to it, I was asking myself, what is it I am trying to say about my father?
The poem did not even start with my father, but from a photograph of a photograph. I was writing a series of poems prompted by art works in a book of contemporary Korean artists.
But today, this father is my father and the moment of the photograph is just after he had said, as we stood around the pool, "You sure fill out that swimsuit."
Is this something that a father says to a daughter? is the question I keep returning to.
The swimsuit was a garish orange floral pattern. It had been chosen in the same desperation and despair as every other swimsuit I owned in those years, in my twenties, when my war with my body raged hot. I did fill it out. I was what the fashion magazines might have termed curvy.
I was there, in Jacksonville, to visit my father. He had just moved into his own apartment in a low-slung concrete building that encircled a grim rectangular pool around which a few old plastic lounge chairs were scattered. He paid for my ticket. He must have felt a little bit of power, summoning me to him as he had, after so many years of estrangement.
Poems have their origins in life and Helen Vendler names the two talents of poets as being imagination and mastery of language. It is this first I am thinking of this morning. To rewrite this moment, I think: what if the water of the pool itself rose up from the ground and drowned us? No. Drowned him. What if I conjured it with my own rage? But it does not seem possible to animate that flat and lifeless pool. Then: what other disastrous forces can I draw down on him? On us? On the sad desolation of this scene?
I do have a photograph of that visit, from later that day perhaps. I'm wearing denim cut-off shorts and inexplicably, a man's tailored suit vest over the orange swimsuit. (Was that something I wore then? Suit vests over shorts?) My father is hunched a little, from persistent back pain. He's gray -- his hair, his skin. He's leaning on a cane with one hand and his other arm is around my shoulder. I am standing as far away from him as I can in this configuration and while I may not be scowling exactly, my expression could not be mistaken for anything other than discomfort. Who is taking this photograph, I wonder?
Does the water rise, or does the pool drain itself? Does the sky get dark? Does wind shake the tree branches? Does the earth itself open up and swallow us -- the lounge chairs, the pool, the sad apartment complex?
At the center of this poem is my father. Son of immigrants, high-school dropout. Served his country in ways that were never clearly articulated -- or at least, not to me. Twice divorced. Some time after this visit, he will remarry and he will write a few letters to me in which he hints at his newly-rediscovered sexual satisfaction.
At the center of this poem is me. Lost girl. Half-scowling. I'll return to Providence and fall for distant men who barely see me. And the poem will unravel, and I'll keep trying to put it back together.