Monday brought clouds to the beach and thankfully a decrease in the number of people coaxing their elderly mothers into the Atlantic surf. A bland day mostly, but one stirred for me by another spoonful of magic from a poet I first discovered last March with a poem from her remarkable 2006 collection, Dark Alphabet. The poet is Washington state native Jennifer Maier, a writer whose work has appeared in American Poet, Poetry, The Mississippi Review and since 2007 been featured five times on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. Dark Alphabet, won the Crab Orchard Review Series in Poetry First Book Award and was named one of the Ten Remarkable Books of 2006 by the Academy of American Poets.
The father figure is for many a powerful ingredient in the roller coaster mix of experience and emotion that defines childhood and youth, and for some perhaps, the years long after that. Even in those homes where the father was an absent figure, that absence was ingredient enough to create its own psychology. We are all to some degree haunted by the memory of a father’s words and some of us even imagine scenarios in which a deceased parent talks to us across the gulf separating life and death. According to Jennifer Maier the seeds of her writing were planted early in life when her father read poems to her she little understood, but managed in time to absorb their rhythmic cadences. In her poem “My Father’s Platitudes” Maier has an ‘encounter’ with her deceased father, but takes his appearance and his words with a large grain of salt.
MY FATHER’S PLATITUDES
I’m in the kitchen slicing bread for a sandwich
when he starts in again, my dead father, with his advice;
only it’s not his treatise on how we should all listen
to Thor Heyerdahl, whom was a true genius and not the crackpot
everybody said he was, or why I should swap the IBM
for pure gold bullion on account of the Jews.
One day death will catch up to other technology
and the words of the dead sail effortless through dry space,
but now they arrive random as coconuts,
sodden as crated wreckage.
I watch him waving from the shore, making big
hand signals, like castaways in the movies.
It’s me, he calls, your everlovin’ father,
and he looks okay, though not as I remember him,
young in dress whites and epaulettes,
or later, skeletal on a raft of empty bottles,
his soul tied to the mast like a soiled undershirt.
I’m slicing a tomato at the equator, like he taught me.
A dull knife’s more dangerous than a sharp one, he shouts,
sawing his hand back and forth in the air. I test the blade
with my thumb, thinking about knives and danger,
about what I would defend with my life.
ARE YOU A MAN OR A MOUSE, GODDAMMIT! he yells,
mixing me up with my brother, but I have theories
of my own, and I tell him that even mice have their share
of timid glory, outwitting the amber eye that’s stalking them,
carrying crumbs home to the little ones, not crawling
into some rat hole to die.
Well, life is a shit sandwich, he says, holding it out
to me like spoils from a doomed vessel.
That’s a good one, I say, and take it as my portion,
his gift from the fathomless reaches between us.