Hieroglyph for a father

Reporting once again from Elkhart, Indiana, en route to Providence.  Elkhart is green & in the middle of the country, south of some Great Lakes.  Today the sun shone, the trucks plowed, the bugs spattered 'gainst the windshield of the golden Buick.

I wrote this poem about 25 yrs ago, thinking of my dad, and also of the "word of the father", the Biblical Word filtering down the Nile between sand dunes & pyramids.  The Twin Cities are a sort of Egypt in reverse : the Mississippi is the Nile, the great seed companies (Pillsbury, General Mills) & the many grain elevators are like the Pharaoh's storehouses, watched over by prudent Joseph.  My Dad was a very wise & prudent Joseph himself, a sort of self-contained perfectionist & workaholic.  Coming of age in America in the late 60s, I think I (along with my brothers to some extent) found it hard to reconcile our highly motivated, organized, dedicated & driven father, with the sharp & sour odor of violence, chaos & confusion of that time.  The "social malaise" (Nixon, Agnew, the War, the riots, the Weathermen...).  I was part of that prodigal confusion myself.

He worked in a profession (intellectual property litigator) saturated in conflict, rivalry & stress.  But he didn't bring it home or channel it against us.

Anyway, this poem is about my father but it's also an allegory about the Word.  "Out of Egypt have I called my son..." - the son Joseph of the 12 tribes, & also the son of Joseph, the carpenter...


Papa was always working on the house,
his long shadow bent across the sill
like a letter in an unknown alphabet,
his hoe or hammer making their steady
marks across the vagabond afternoons,
the deep summer water we lived through
holding our breath, our lungs tight
with promises, danger, laughing gas.

And when we grew older, more serious
and dangerous, Papa was always working
late at the office. For all we knew
he was a drone of the dread Pharaoh,
one of the caretakers of the Sphinx,
late into the night composing riddles,
subtle passwords and husky undertones
which opened the secret granary doors.

And it was only later, as we watched
his dry wooden boat slip underground,
that we understood the clean framing
of intention, the straight crossbeams
of its execution, that house of his
a kind of sounding board for praise.
Working across the tightrope of the
roofline was his way of walking on air.

& here's another, even older poem, which gets a little at that difference of the generations, and the feeling we had of our Dad, moving on ahead of us into the pine forest.


Every morning my father followed
the dusty freeway rings - a welter
of iron circles, a maze of wheels
dodging beneath the vertical
shelter of the concrete law.

And he jousted with the cold
steel cables of the elevators;
he stood before the judges,
spearing a wet dollar each day
in the rockbound pool of possession.

Somewhere between the inventive silence
of the shop, and the hollow hunger
of the labyrinth, he traveled out
with a ball of legal twine, ready
for turbid blades in the gripping dream -

and at the end of December,
the two of us, the rusty brothers,
trailing those roads again
in your rattling clunker,
remembering the dance steps

of the breakdowns, the power,
the glory, for ever and ever.
A mystery man goes on ahead of us,
on through the green light,
into the lake-blue sky -

(and there's a charitable shadow
in the norway spruce tonight, a star
already hidden in the thunderhead;
there's all the peaceful sleep
we never knew, winging over the highway).

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