Experiments with Form

Breathing Space: ruminations on veiling and unveiling the rent –

…intellectual control of a poem is something to apply
after the materials have been allowed to float to the surface…
-Sydney Lea

A veteran of the Korean War, my father promptly changed his major from engineering to hotel management upon his return from the service, because, he said, “I figured I’d rather do something with people.” He was proud of the fact that with a mean of 135, his unit had the highest I.Q. average of any that had survived basic training. As sort of a “vision quest,” like many men, he found that the experience of being in the Army also served him, in that it helped him clarify his goals, develop a life-plan. His motto became “if you love it, feed it.”

His resolution to nurture the living extended to his children. When I was laid up with some childhood malady (measles? chickenpox?) or another, my father patiently taught me how to use water colors. When I found an abandoned blue bike, my father taught me how to fix it, keep it working, and how to ride. Because he’d been captain of the hockey team in college, he laced up my figure skates so tightly I thought the circulation in my feet would be cut off, and then proceeded to teach me how to skate for speed and quick maneuvering. No frivolous figure eights — just spin, shoot, score!

Perhaps more essential, however, was what my father taught by his example. As a patient in the geriatric psychiatry ward at Johns Hopkins, my father amazed the physicians with his command of language, telling my mother, for example, “your problems are picayune compared to mine,” or that he was “anathema around here,” even as his disease was eroding his ability to speak. During his stay, he fought depression, all the while hoping not only for a diagnosis, but holding out for a cure. Although many neurological diseases were ruled out, he never got a positive diagnosis. Still, he never complained, and even after everything was taken from him: his athletic ability, his motor control, his memory, his mental capacity and his facility to speak, a quiet dignity shone through his eyes and lit his face right up to the moment he drew his very last breath.

It was in processing his death by looking at his life, his principles, the things he taught both actively and by his tacit example, that I discovered (or, more accurately: re-discovered) an entry in my dream journal that dates back to when I was about 15 years old. Re-reading the account as an adult gave me a new perspective, and I began to understand my father in a different way than when I was an adolescent. That is, rather than seeing my father as a particular “form” or body, I recognized him as a particular “force” or nurturing presence in my life. This realization made me re-evaluate what I thought it meant to father a child, in terms of relationship, rather than merely bodily/biological, “issue.” In this way, my father “feeds” me, still.

In working with this idea, I decided to put the material from my dream journal on the page first, before the title and the rest of the poem, so that the dream “vision” serves to “frame” the poem, partly to subvert conventional form and partly to suggest the idea of growing into a new perspective. After experimenting for a while, I also decided to italicize the dream material, and to make it grayed-out, so that it appears to be fading away, as dreams do.

So, in honor of Father’s Day, and as an homage to my Dad, and to all men who care for and nurture other people, here is my offering:
Empty House

Happy Father’s Day!


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