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For Fathers, Present and Absent

Some reflections (and poems) on those loved, lost or never there.

Fiona Tinwei Lam 15 Jun

Fiona Tinwei Lam is the author of two books of poetry about love and loss. Her new illustrated children's title, The Rainbow Rocket, published this spring by Oolichan Books, is about a young boy whose grandparent struggles with Alzheimer's disease.

I remember my father as a six-foot tall, slim, immaculately groomed man who always seemed most at home wearing a shirt and tie. Despite being a pediatrician, my father never seemed all that comfortable with us kids. Invariably aloof and polite, he often seemed to be watching us from a distance while my mother, a former obstetrician, grudgingly managed the household.

They were complete opposites in temperament and style: cool vs. incendiary, logical vs. emotional, tidy vs. cluttered, formal vs. casual. It was as if we kids were imprisoned on a Chinese-Canadian version of the Starship Enterprise with Spock and Kirk as our parents in reversed roles, with the rest of the crew having abandoned ship, while we careened into a wormhole.

My father was admitted to the hospital at the age of 41, and died three months later just before his 42nd birthday. I was 11 years old at the time, and had never had a meaningful conversation with him. Neither of us had known how to talk to the other. The invariable questions about school were answered with the usual monosyllables. I wish I'd been told he was dying and been given a chance to ask him about what his childhood was like when his family fled the Imperial Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, why he ran away as a first year student at Dartmouth College to join the communists in China, how he was viewed with suspicion as a capitalist's son in Beijing, yet reviled as a communist sympathizer in Hong Kong, what it was like to live in Scotland, why he married my mother, his feelings about having daughters, why he brought us all to Canada, his regrets about his life -- but most of all, did he love us, and what did that love actually mean.

Of course, I was too young to even think of those questions, let alone ask them. He would probably have been too sick to answer. And any responses would likely have been sanitized for underage consumption anyway.

Verse for dad

Who we become as adults can be shaped as much by a parent's absence as by a parent's presence while we are growing up. Our family was haunted by our father's death for decades. Remembrance and loss are at the root of the historical origins of Father's Day, and also form the basis of many poems written about fathers by our finest poets, whether they are poems that celebrate moments of connection and awe and delight, or that lament what has been lost, taken or never received -- or poems that intertwine the two.

What our fathers show us or teach us can last a lifetime. A symbolic truth or an enduring insight can sometimes be found within an ordinary activity or event. The poem "Starlight" by American poet Philip Levine remembers being a four-year-old sitting on his careworn father's shoulders to look at the stars -- a small but symbolic moment that profoundly transforms them both.

In "A Grain of Rice", the title poem of Evelyn Lau's wonderful and elegiac book of poetry, A Grain of Rice (Oolichan Books, 2012), the poet recalls through carefully crafted lines how her father instructed her to linger over a single grain of rice: "...His instruction/was to chew it slowly, savour it,/let the starch release and dissolve--/he wanted to teach the child/that even a grain of rice/could yield a store of sweetness/if you were starving." In "Frozen", the poet and her father are within close proximity to each other at a family funeral, yet they do not speak, prolonging an unabated estrangement: "I watched him through the fogged glass/and the shining air. The first time in fifteen years,/the last time in this life...."

The poem "Shredding" by award-winning Ontario poet Maureen Hynes unfolds with a vivid and precise description of the tedious but necessary chore of shredding her deceased father's accumulated piles of documents. While subjected to the drone of the shredder's motor, the poet has a startling flash of memory of her father at the family home before his decline. It's a quietly skillful poem that moves toward a lovely, revivifying epiphany and resolution.

Toronto poet Sue Chenette also excavates key moments and symbolic meaning within the everyday. Her recent book The Bones of His Being (Guernica Editions, 2012) eloquently and unflinchingly details her father's gradual decline, deepening depression and death. In an interview with Open Book Toronto, she discusses her writing process for some of the poems in her book:

"I have mementos -- my dad's wrist watch, a wallet, a square nail he carried in a pocket. Sitting at my desk, I'd take one out and finger it, turn it over until it offered up some sense of his life. I was trying to call him back. Or trying to find who he was: this father, whom I loved and was sure I knew so well, but who deepened, in death, into the mystery of his own being. The poems were my search for him. "

North Vancouver poet Russell Thornton has also explored his relationship with his father -- present and absent -- through poetry. One of my favourites was a finalist for the 2011 Montreal International Poetry Prize, "Aluminum Beds", which is also included in his stunning and powerful new collection, Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain (Harbour Publishing, 2013). In the poem, the father brings metal beds to the family home which he assembles in front of his children just prior to abandoning the family for good: "...My brothers/fall asleep one by one. I lie and wait/....Through the night,/the metal embraces me. It is a skeleton,/unending silver, pure and cold, and I become it,/the light of my father's love arrived at last."

The common thread among these poets' poems about their fathers is love -- whether it is love given, love denied, or love salvaged, twisted or damaged beyond repair. And whether you celebrate or do not celebrate Father's Day, and whatever your experience of fatherhood or of being fathered may be, ultimately it is love -- present or absent -- that lies at the core of who, what and how we are in the world.

Two poems

Here are two lyrical, beautifully written and unsentimental poems about fatherhood, the passage of time and mortality. In the first poem, Russell Thornton describes watching his young daughter playing in the sand at the same beach where his maternal grandparents had once courted long ago, which also happens to be close to where his grandparents' ashes have been buried. The poem is a wonderful meditation on the connection between generations.

In the second poem, Vancouver poet Rob Taylor pays homage to the legacy of his deceased father, pondering whether he will ever possess his father's boundless warmth, love, strength and grace. The poem, written in the glosa form (in which the last line of each stanza incorporates a line from another poem by another poet -- in this case, iconic Canadian poet Al Purdy), journeys through the poet's childhood memories of being taught to swim by his father, past his father's decline and death, into the poet's attempt years afterward to play his father's favourite and habitual game of solitaire one evening.

My Daughter and the Geometry of Time
By Russell Thornton

Clear sun, spring wind twisting spray up off waves,
my daughter digging, dropping shovelfuls
of clean sand through a sea-worn opening
in a jutting limb of a driftwood tree,
watching grains fall to an apex of sand
and slide to the widening base. I see
the black glowing around the visible,
the sun, sky, water, beach flat. There are pairs
of hands in each incoming wave tip's froth,
frenzied, fashioning fire and flinging it,
before they fall away, to the grey sand
and into that black. My daughter is two
and I am almost fifty. My mother's
parents' ashes lie where I buried them
in sand a hundred feet or so from here—
I think of them as having gone within
shells that are spheres of time, the radii
three times the one within which I now stand,
innumerable times the one within
which my daughter now stands, her sphere so new
that it is a radiant point, a source
full of her future. When she is the age
I am now, she will remember nothing
of the hour and a half this afternoon
she and I spent together. She will not
ever know the two people I still see
as clearly as any in my present.
When young they courted here in the beach light,
the worn logs and cornered wind their shelter
and secret escape. Their old eyes become
more and more for me the one sphere of time;
whatever my own eyes see, they give me.
Light taking light into its arms. Light, light,
in shell after shell. I dream I allow
my daughter to know more than I have known.
I think I will be here at her margins
when I am gone in the same way those two
are now at my own margins, receding
to the beginning. I will see the froth
travelling circular intricacies
like white flames from the earth's immense hollows,
scooped up by the waters and let go free,
I will see my small daughter gazing back
at me for a moment from where she stands
collecting and pouring the sand, moving
into the future at the speed of light.

Reprinted with permission of the author and the publisher from Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain by Russell Thornton (Harbour Publishing, 2013).

By Rob Taylor

I am waiting for time to come
holding the many days' sameness inside me
fold on fold of invisible stuff
that you can't see and yet piles up
secretly in the mind like nothing at all
an unseen dust
– then I ask myself what I'm talking about
and can't answer that either:
a quantity of something I can't describe
or measure or prove or disprove
- "Untitled," Al Purdy

On your day, my wife and I toss out
the words of a prayer for you, fourteen
years dead, a man she never met.
It's a blessing you said often.
Afterwards, I describe again
your broad chest and grin.
How you would have cared for her:
with Warmth, I say, with Love – words
I hope to one day enter, speak from.
I am waiting for time to come

and help me inhabit these words
you understood and lived:
Strength. Grace. Your last son
born late in life, something inside you
that could no longer be contained,
escaped as me. Your arthritic joints
supple as you supported my body
at swimming lessons, cradled its exhausted
looseness to bed each night. You firmly
held the many days' sameness inside me

and relished the repetitions:
What's this? Ball. Good.
Mama. Good. Papa. Good.
Words as wards against three waves
of chemo, the last the worst. Delusion –
your staccato stumbling from the mouth,
the earth. The losing rough as gravel,
steady as tides and tireless. Your mind and then
your body, one death not enough –
fold on fold of invisible stuff.

The importance I felt at your funeral
in my polished black shoes, the later
shame. The desert of middle school. First
crush, first shave, first awkward shiftings.
Always less remaining to forget:
a prayer, card game, story, your belly-flop
laugh. Then, high school's abandon. The girl
who will become my wife. Your slow burial
under new memories, muck
that you can't see and yet piles up

until the earth levels under short-trimmed grass.
Rituals each birthday, my arm slung
atop mom's shoulder. Later, my back hooked
over your version of solitaire, the game you failed
to beat in eighty years – a battle I resumed,
though I was satisfied with failure, a legend to recall
for my own children of the game no man could conquer,
not even their grandpa of mountains and myth
and genius. One story that wouldn't fail me, wouldn't fall
secretly from the mind like nothing at all.

That evening eight years in, eager
for sleep, I slid the pack out one-handed,
as you'd shown, and fanned the cards
across the table. Again and again the failure
of suits and numbers to find their common home.
I shuffled lazily, re-dealt, my thin hands heavy,
mind corroded by drowsiness and resignation.
Each move made with little calculation, care. Yet there
it was, the last card. Final thrust.
An unseen dust

rising off the pack. I searched
for my mistake. But no break in the pattern.
Everything in place but me, though I arrived,
thought of you sitting at the same table
years before. Your devout fingers.
Ruffled brows. Commentaries, in turns stout
and languorous. Apologetic chuckles.
Swift movements. Sweepings up. I spoke
these things aloud. In that room, I hauled them out,
then I asked myself what I was talking about.

The words hung dispossessed,
abandoned. Pride or shame or sadness –
anything but this absence, this wall
without a door. I pushed the cards away,
two-handed, then spoke the word Death
and watched it waver, a worn tapestry.
I asked myself how it meant, and what,
and why it had emerged from my body before Love.
I asked if it meant both or neither
and couldn't answer that either.

Your father was a good man,
says my wife, slipping her arm
across the small of my back and resting
it on the lip of fat above my hip. Good.
Yes, that's right. Of all the doors
I'd approached, but could not enter,
this one opens for me first. And across the room
another word, another door. And more.
Winding almost endlessly inside –
a quantity I can't describe.

Father, somewhere down this stretch of doors
is Death. Not at the end, but near it. Love
is further in, I fear. And Fear, yes, even further.
But how to navigate this path? A leaping, I suppose,
a stumbling. My thin hand in hers. A lifetime spent
opening one door, finding another. Each room tidy
and warm, prepared for our coming.
In thanks, we cast these words ahead across
the distance. If they reach, and whom, we cannot choose
or measure or prove or disprove.

Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher from The Other Side of Ourselves by Rob Taylor (Cormorant Books, 2011).  [Tyee]

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