Audio: Read by the author.
When my father turned nineteen
his father died and no one told him
the truth of dying:
the ocean is for sale today
and you cannot buy it.
In their corner store, Kosher for Passover
labels arrived unaccompanied
by rabbis’ actual prayers
duplicity sticking to each can
of mandarins, each vessel of sour pickles.
The silences could drown a boy,
could slay him
down to a slip of breath—
language drifting between Yiddish and English—
Shabbat candles the only brightness
he could rely on. Stay bright,
stay bright, he might have prayed
but probably not.
Perhaps his mind played the periodic tables
or bicycled down tenement avenues.
Here is what he learned:
to perfect invisibility, to become a statue—
an “American” like Buffalo Bill
or the Kennedys. I think of the tides
that grew him—a man with a talent
for happiness and his wife alive in misery.
The plush and spin of their marriage; the green tongue
never watered enough. Angel wing begonias
my father grew in pots of vermiculite—no dirt
allowed in my mother’s house, no ants. What made
him do it? Every year as winter dust tempered
the sun porch he transplanted the starts upstairs,
and attic bound they rested, dormant. Today,
my father, dead twenty years, would be ninety-three. It’s hard
to believe it. Were you his favorite? my father’s best friend
asked as the funeral broke up. And so I took it in
the same way I overheard a student on campus
pleading with his friend, Do I smell of pancake batter?
asking as if he really needed to know. So little
it takes to swim beyond the small talk and investigate
the oceanic floor. The coral reefs and lost sunglasses,
the obscured treasures of feeling and forms
of intimacy. Only once did my father tell me
I love you. That human line of language, three
syllables and eight letters with two spaces in between.
It’s the in-between where I live now. The
middle of middle age where I paint my house
the dove blue-gray of Allston Street, to invite back
the person who fathered me, the branched
tributaries in blossom on his birthday, May 20,
where I will return to him beyond language.
My ghost self and his finally speaking.
Susan Rich’s fifth book of poetry, Gallery of Postcards and Maps: New and Selected Poems is forthcoming from Salmon Press. Her other books include Cloud Pharmacy and The Alchemist’s Kitchen (both from White Pine). She has received an Artist Trust Fellowship, Fulbright Fellowship to South Africa, and a PEN USA Award.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.