My poetry has always been like a flipped coin whose two sides are the brokenness of the world and the wholeness we yearn for in our lives. These major chords are played, at times nearly simultaneously, in this 5-piece sequence that focuses on my parents and my children. The poems are from In the Path of Lightning: Selected Poems (Time Being Books, 2012). The final poem in that collection, “Snow Is the Poem Without Flags,” received the 2014 Aesthetica Creative Writing Award for Poetry, and the book as a whole received the 2012 Paterson Award for Excellence in Literature. More poems, as well as information about me and my work, can be found at http://www.charlesfishman.com/.
I began with poems for you: brass and iron,
poems of zinc, zircon, battered silver, ruby poems,
poems of rust and emerald.
Father, your silence was a mystery I could not
unravel. There seemed to be a somber bridge
you had crossed over, a path of disappearing sunlight
that, forever, had stripped you of words.
Something absent had a crystal grip on you.
Your tenderness was patience, forbearance.
Your nuclear anger scorched all the kite strings
in the kingdom. Yet you taught me how to ride
a golden bike, how to fish for keepers, enduring
in memory as coral, and your pleasure in my life
has slowly healed me, drops of mead licking,
like small cobalt flames, at my heart.
Mother, your girlish laughter always startled,
a song you sang to remember. I was your son
and the air around my body held auroras of sapphire
and opal. You brought me over from the old
country, before life, gave light to me, syllables
for my first human thoughts. Each day was Un Bel Di,
tragic and intoxicating, a flash of topaz, then black
Cape Hatteras, 1938
I went fishing with my father
in that dream. I have the pictures
in my head: the old Woody crammed
with gear and nested in the dunes.
I have his rods, reels, sinkers,
hand-carved lures. His hip-boots
fit me snugly. This can't be memory.
For where are the striped bass
we've caught? where is the sea's
green membrane? the sea's bitter
blood? Where are the shiny scales
that should stipple our arms
and fingers? The shore tips
and heaves: stars brush our lips
with healing galactic fire. Father,
can you feel the briny stars
on your aging body? I went fishing
with you in my dream, and you reached
into the dark waves to teach me,
you walked the twilight beach with me,
you released me from my anger.
But it was death we shared, not life.
Can you feel the tide run now,
its churn and ebb? can you hear
the storm pound the sand with rain?
can you feel the line scream
in our bleeding hands? Have I hooked you,
father? Will I land your heart at last?
My Father on a Sled, Smoking
There he is on the sled, which is parked
on the front lawn. He’s going nowhere fast,
yet the reins are in his hands — no, not
the reins but the rope this small vehicle
is towed with. And he’s a happy man —
anyone who motors by can see that:
the way he sits erect, his knees jutting
but not quite skyward, his feet in rubber
boots, jammed to the rudder and ready
to steer. The weather is mild and clear.
Now look at the lit cigarette that droops
from his lips that resist speaking, at his
ungloved hands that revel in their strength
and will not heed the cold. My father
is not yet old though, unknown to him,
he is dying: if he continues to smoke
like this, his lungs will wither and blacken
his hands fall open in his lap. Though the day
is frozen in memory, his world is rushing
forward. Father, this is no time to relax.
Stand up now: you need to wrest control
from this poisoned future. Pitch the fresh pack
hidden in your jacket into the glitter of ice
and snow. Take off your cap and let it go.
Breathe in the sweet chill of this undreamt of
moment when life offers you a choice. Father,
listen to my voice that calls out to you
across the snow-bound void: you will swerve
at the last jolting second, and death’s branches
will scar your face but, five decades later,
you will sit, knees wrapped in a white wool blanket:
a dear scared frail old man, dozing to Frank Sinatra
and almost at peace as sleep drags you down.
Today, mother, you have become
most vulnerable: shaved scrubbed
opened to the knife and to the knowledge
of your surgeon, you are lost
in a drugged haze a field of opium poppies
While you withdraw from your damaged body
that lies in false sunlight under the cutter's hand,
I recall the thousand afternoons I found you
washing dishes or folding clothes
or setting our small kitchen table for dinner:
always you'd be dancing
from one needy thing to another always
you'd be singing, at least the melody of a song
Mother, we were so young and innocent
only the afternoon shade seemed dark
Later, I grew away from you
and knew what it was to be lonely:
after the dream of your body,
where could I live so well?
Now, the earth in me stops spinning,
light bleeds from the evening sky
I think even you will darken a little now
that sunlight will dim in you
After you've been stitched, washed,
and slowly wakened I will you
to be strong to heal quickly and to be young
but then you whisper, Daddy needs to rest
and it's clear, mother, how tired you've grown
I try to remember you as you were
nearly sixty years ago, before I was your son:
your long brown hair brushed with a reddish fire
slim waist and slender legs always one step
from dancing The photos I have of you darken
and grow old
When I learn that you will live that life
flows back into each cell each bone
and when you tell me, My heart is set on dancing —
ten thousand sunsets shift from black to rose
Words hold me again in their sweet
and fiery embrace
for my daughters
Wind seethes deep in the coconut palms,
weaves those spiky leaves into weapons
of samurai rain
then slowly unsheathes the sun — a changeableness
the blood gathers: pelican gulp of the breeze,
blue heron cloaked in mangrove root
and shadow. You drink deeply this moss-tangled
heaven, clasped securely in talons
of sun and air.
From the yellow frangipani, joy in fragrance.
The red hibiscus flares. Welcome to the sun,
to bare skin, the realm of the body,
sweet odors of star-blossoming hands, home
still green and butterfly-golden, aroma
of fresh coffee, vanilla bean, tapioca, ginger.
Your toes and fingers, lips and throat
What language does the earth speak?
Perhaps tongues near to the equator know
bone-fire Gaelic or Upper Ganges Greek,
some subterranean text darker than Swahili
that bubbles up from a fissure deep
It's something about the trees that gives meaning:
the way they sway, the way they lean
And the sea — what vowels or consonants
does the sea utter? Sunlight faltering west
cuts the night to ribbons, prisms of light
risen from the underworld of the moment.
It's the light falling and the slashed night riven
and the mind a full moon tidal in its power:
once again, to be cupped in the palm
©2015 Charles Fishman