The Father Poems

(Cross+Roads Press, 2005)

Teach Your Children Well

 “and feed them on your dreams”
—Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Can tell you only what I have come to know:
clean, black cut of new-paved road
(always north and always uphill)
flanked by yellow beans and khaki corn;
behind, hollow moon dragging her sullen face
toward dark tangle of the Yellow Medicine River
(cottonwood, deer, fox, and pheasant);
ahead, flame of northern lights, aurora borealis,
and, always, firm distance of the pole star.

The Raised Fist of the Father

“I am speaking of heights more than fathers,
though the two tend to go together.”
—David Allen Evans

We have seen him only in the briefest moments,
distanced, silhouetted against the setting sun.

His head is thrown back, his mouth open
in a cry of anger, pain, or exaltation,
his fist clenched in admonition, defiance, or joy.

His hair is full, the body without sex,
that of a Sioux warrior or the young Christ.
The clothing is indistinct, and
the voice too remote to be understood.

Perhaps it is the surprised cry of the soldier
felled by a sniper in Iraq or Vietnam.
Perhaps it is a cry of triumph,
at Marathon or after the last game of the World Series.
Perhaps it’s a warning: do not come where I am.

Sometimes we hear in it nothing more than a toast,
in French or Gaelic,
in a Montmartre cafe or a Dun Loaghaire pub.
Maybe this is Martin Luther
hammering his theses to a church door.

Perhaps this is Pete Townshend,
throwing the neck of a broken guitar to fans.
Perhaps this man is singing or dancing,
or possibly he is just sore at his kids.

Maybe he’s drunk or unsteady, or
has twisted his ankle and is falling backwards.
At this distance, who can tell?

Perhaps the fist is not a fist, but a waving hand;
perhaps the voice is not a cry, but a call.

Playing the Strings of Guilt

“Gimme all your money;
Gimme all your gold. . . .”
—The Rolling Stones

The hand trembles noticeably.
It is the right hand, the one he uses to sign
the check that pays the mortgage on their house,
to throw a football with his son and a softball with his daughter,
to write love letters and paint the trim in the spare bedroom.
There is a string attached to it,
and it is the silken string of guilt.

The string tugs at his wrist, and look!
a dozen red roses and a Hallmark card.
The string vibrates again, and see!  life insurance
should he go before his time.
The string goes taut, and behold!  a signed confession:
“You are right.  I did it all.  I wish I had done more.
I make myself sick.
I have killed myself with a heart attack.
They will never suspect.
The car is paid for, and the house.
Don’t forget the insurance, Social Security,
my silver fillings and gold crowns.
Give the children a good education.
Buy yourself the new sofa you always wanted.
You deserve it.
Love forever.”

The Father, Lonely in His Exile,
Blesses the Children for Whom He Waits

“And may you stay forever young.”
—Bob Dylan

April, and the heart bends south,
downstream from birch and jack pine.
Setting aside his maps and compass,
the father remembers the children he loves;

Writes to them of birch and pine
and the still, blue world of walleye,
solitude of owls, company of swallows,
the great, wedging distances of geese;

Wishes them grace afield, on stage, and
in the ordinary slouch of things;
ease of giving and ease of receiving,
the ease of laughter in the right places.

Yet I would have you work for hire,
know the long hours of man
bending toward machine,
the old ache of bone and muscle.

Let yours be a high, moral anger
at the time for taking up swords,
quickly to perceive and quickly
to strike, and true, and clean,

and, having paid the world its due,
quickly to open again the heart,
recalcitrantly naive, unsoured
by the pickling brine of experience.

Most of all, I wish you
children like yourselves, all promise
and pain, joy and sorrow, all
love that was, is still to come.

Exercise Against Retirement #4

(for Rev. Arthur J. Larson, 6/22/80)

“Oh captain, my dear captain,
we are staying down so long. . . .”
—Phil Ochs

Boulders of the New England shoreline:
fins of weathered gneiss, salt-
bleached and sun-scoured, unlayering
like the trunk of a dead cedar.

Behind, clapboard of white Cape Cods,
dense green of the American continent;
in front, seaweed on folded rock,
the gray immensity of the great Atlantic.

Traveling, alone, practicing my freedom,
I come to this junction of the three kingdoms,
and think of you in your stability:
father, harbor, man always at home.

A gull circles broadly over the waves;
a lobsterman in a dory checks his pots;
deflated kelp clings to its moorings,
awaiting the return of salt water.

North, south extends the coastline:
Maine’s gray shores, lighthouse at Gaspé,
Sands of Nantucket, Hatteras, Daytona,
Bright turquoise of the Florida Keys.

Invitations of line, invitations of plane:
this infinity of possibilities enforces my absence.
I spin out with the gull, scuttle with the lobster
across new, green worlds, eager to become

anything except this stark fixity of rock
pitched against wind and ice and water,
precarious edge of kelp and gull and snail,
stripped foundation of a continent.

Home Visit

“He came a long way just to explain;
He kissed his boy as he lay sleeping,
and he turned around and went home again.”
—Paul Simon

In the dark tunnels of I-80
all analysis dissipates
into the amplitudes
of clear channel radio.
Thinks it just as well:
whatever he told him
would have been a lie;
besides, one man’s lover
is another man’s wife.
Thinks the blues singers say it best
on K double-A Y, Little Rock.
After them, Rev. Bishop Randolph Goodwin
of the Holy Temple Church of the Lord Jesus Christ:
“If I’d of known then what I know now,
I’d of taken other measures.”

What more can I say, boy?
You have the law and the prophets,
and if you heed not them,
neither would you believe though
one should return from the dead.

Fathers and Sons

“This room once had childish laughter,
and I come back to hear it now and again.”
—Peter, Paul and Mary

Remembers, mostly, the earliest years, and
the small excuses to touch:
carry-me-up, rock-me-to-bed,
horseyback and you-can’t-get-out-of-this-one.
The hands firmly planted on a tiny butt
on the swing seat.  Walking,
big hand in little hand, to kindergarten.

Remembers also the gradual learning of distances:
fly pattern, passer to receiver;
games of hide and seek in the back yard;
60’ 6”, pitcher’s rubber to home plate;
tennis, with a net between.

Sees with unsettling clarity father and son,
fingers always not quite touching,
high over Michelangelo’s chapel,
the father disappearing into dark snows
of a Minnesota blizzard, or
searching, white-bearded, for reunion
at the place where three roads meet.

Pilgrim at Ten Year’s Remove

“I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold.”
—Neil Young

A pilgrim at ten year’s remove,
he comes at last to the enchanted town,
Betwys-y-Coed, Wales,
and sees again in memory’s eye
the daughter tucked to bed
in the cottage with the black slate roof,
the son kicking his soccer ball around
the parking lot of the Lone Oak Hotel,
wanders with both among sheep and forest,
hiking upstream toward Swallow Falls,
hears on the suspension bridge
behind the darkening graveyard
the footsteps of third Billy Goat Gruff
echoing tromp, tromp, tromp over
the great, resounding void in his heart.

The Cheerleaders

—for Jan Peters and Sally Schaefer,
for April O’Marah and Jean Hogan,
for Phenomenal Daughter Kris

Always in my memory’s eye
come the cheerleaders
on winged feet,
hair bobbing in
their spontaneous fidget,
arms a blur, hips
all sway and glide,
all swing and soar.

Handspringing, summersaulting,
they dance for distant fathers,
their fragile beauty all we love:
grace, youth,
our children, ourselves.
We reach out to them.

And I reach out for you,
lift you, send you
soaring in a double flip
high above the court,
catch you childlike and
featherlight, hold you close,
then toss you up again
and yet again.

So very much to say, yet
what I know you have already guessed:
joy of motion, joy of grace,
the blue remembered pain of
having danced, never
to dance quite that dance again.

This too I know:
exuberance is beauty,
and beauty truth
(all sway and glide),
and this you dance
and in your dancing
move me still, and
teach me to rejoice.

Visiting the Father

“This body offers to carry us . . . for nothing.”
—Robert Bly

You will find him in the basement,
behind the closed door of the old coal bin,
now his workroom.  He is still there,
splitting shake shingles for your doll house,
putting a coat of paint on your box hockey game.
Sometimes he busies himself refinishing old furniture, or, as his wife puts it, “just puttering.”
None of his work here involves money,
so you know it is important.

If you knock and give the secret password,
he will turn down the ball game on the radio,
wipe the sawdust from his hands, and open the door.
You can sit on the orange and yellow stool
and tell him again how you caught the three-pound walleye,
how your ballet teacher says you’re ready to go up on point
(or he will sit on the orange and yellow stool,
watch you jazz dance to “Baby, You’re a Rich Man,”
help you saw and glue your wooden race car).

If you ask, he will tell you
important secrets that he has told no one ever before:
stories of his life before he met your mother,
what your name might have been if you hadn’t been you,
how to throw a curve ball, how to draw a tree,
the proper time for planting radishes and tomatoes,
where the walleye hide in the winter.
If you ask, he will explain that thing he is making.
Yes, you can watch.  Yes, you can help.

Opinions and Facts

“We’re learning about opinions and facts.
This is very hard stuff.”
—Megan Pichaske 

You’re darned tootin’.
Half the teachers at my school
wouldn’t know a hawk from a handsaw
whichever way the wind was blowing.
Feelings pass for ideas these days,
and ideology masquerades as truth.
Put that down for a fact.

Scientists usually get things right:
organic chemistry is not “how I feel.”
The speed of light is not “gender biased.”
The etiology of AIDS is not “homophobic.”
And the athletes—they understand:
You kick this ball into that net.
Throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball.
It wasn’t post-colonial racism blocked your spike,
Not the patriarchy bricked that free throw.
These are facts a smart girl knows.

Here’s a few others:
Megan Pichaske is the smartest kid
in the whole second grade.
Matthew Pichaske rocks.
Addison Pichaske rules.
Your mommy and daddy love you.
God exists—without qualms.
You can’t argue with an ideologue,
because they’re not very smart.
Put these down as facts.
Your grandpa told you so.

Having It All Right

—for Mother and Father on Their 50th

The scent of wood smoke fills the rec room
as mother deals another hand of pinochle.
The television is silent; something
light and classical plays on the radio.
On the tiled floor, a braided rug.
Walls of weathered barn siding display
a collection of wooden farm implements
smoothed and polished by human sweat.
There is a map of German fairy tales,
pictures of the house in Springfield, the desk
at which father wrote half a century of sermons.
Portraits along the stairs—parents, children,
grandchildren to the number five—
celebrate a century of pretty good years.
We are full of father’s home-made pasta
and mother’s home-made peach pie.
No one considers how this place was built.
No one wonders who spin our DNA.
And the grandfather clock strikes nine times.
The books on the shelves settle into themselves.
The timber in the woodpile is well seasoned,
and the rings in the oak logs number fifty.

Taking Care of Business

“Keep an open mind, and
somebody will fill it full of crap.”
—John Charles Creed

“Take care of your teeth,” says dad
on his way to the dentist with a sore molar.
My tongue runs a quick check on
the five gold crowns that I got
for not brushing when I wore braces.
Father lost most of his front teeth
playing hockey as a teenager.

“Take care of your teeth,”
I tell Matthew, who at age five
fancies himself an NHL all-star.
Megan wonders what her loose tooth
will bring from the Tooth Fairy.
“I got a dollar for the last one!”

“Take care of your teeth, I tell Megan;
“You may need them someday
to bite down hard on something evil.

Take care of your eyes,
so you can watch out for the bullshit.

Take care of your nose,
’cause you can’t always see bullshit coming.

Take care of your ears,
so you can hear what they’re saying about you.

Take care of your voice,
so you can tell them where to go,
and how to get there,
and what to do when they arrive.

Take care of your legs,
so you can get the hell out of there.

Take care of your mind,
so nobody fills it full of crap.”

The Grandfathers

(after reading Giants in the Earth)

Gudmundson, Olson, Peturson, Josephson,
Williamson, Anderson, Olafson, Hallgrimson.

In these graves sleep the founders of the kingdom,
below arching elms, their branches bowed
like the vaults of Trondheim Cathedral.

Hanson, Benson, Sigurdson, Peterson,
Björnson, Rafnson, Jonason, Henrickson.

In the cycles of seasons their lives unwound,
in fields of ripening wheat and hay,
in the white wilderness of prairie winter.

Nicholson, Erickson, Högnason, Johnson,
Thordarson, Thorsteinson, Magnuson, Guttormsson.

Out on the edge of distant South Dakota
the sun sets behind the grave of Johann Kristjan Johannson.
He dreams dreams unbroken as the snow-covered prairie.

Driving to Moorhead for a Robert Bly Reading
I Cross the Pomme de Terre River and
Think of My Daughter

Everywhere in the long, low light of late afternoon
this enormous autumn emptiness:
bleached yellow of corn stubble,
orange-umber of prairie grass,
mud brown of the careful muskrat mounds.
So many tiny worlds—and think!
This stuttering roadway unwinds
all the way to Canada!  Must
remember to tell daughter Kristin.