My Father’s Mottos
Do it now, he said, and do it all, as he
stepped from the mailbox with his daily
bushel of letters to answer before marking
a hundred student essays in time for the Ohio
circuit—thirty poetry readings in thirty days.
Do the hard part first, he said, rising at 3 a.m.
to run his round through the dark. His leisure?
I think I’ll read all of Thackery again. In short,
he didn’t mess around. No dithering, he said—
his hero’s message left to a wayward son.
Our Father Teaches Night School at the Coast
They were working people who wanted
to write, so he drove the mountains down
the Wilson River road to Tillamook, stars
or rain, dark miles of thought to a room
of pens and questions, his students giving
stories, troubles, enigmas, now and then
a fish bedded in fern, shy encounters
and farewells one night a week, eight years
of shadows flaring and fading, his loyal car
traveling through the dark where the land
had burned, his drive turning with the river
to bring him home to us to wake and hear
his stories of the long dark road.
Ten Years After the Last Words
Ten years after my father, as he helped my mother
clean the kitchen when the blender had exploded
scattering lime pie filling everywhere, said,
Better get another spatula…
and then fell dead to the floor,
I was standing at the wall with the sheetrock trowel
buttered with finish mud to cover the dimples
of the nails, the panel seam snug against the stud,
and I asked my father in my mind, “Daddy,
have I done enough for you?”
His voice bloomed in my head:
Years ago. Years ago you did enough.
“But how can I choose between your work
and mine?” Again, his voice, fine as dust:
Do the work that is most alive.
Some days it may be mine,
Most days it will be your own.
And finally you won’t know the difference.
With one stroke I closed the seam.
My Father’s Bread
Humble in most things, he took pride
in his loaf dropped hot from the pan
to cool under a towel on the board
dusted with cornmeal.
First he’d whet his farm knife by the sound
of slink, slink across the stone,
then slide the blade through his heap
steaming as it fell open, as earth scent
baked from dirt rose to cloud his face
in quiet satisfaction. So many things
he could never solve, never save,
could never stop wars and sorrows.
But always there was this—a dab
of jam on the corner of his slice
taken in one ravenous bite where,
for one moment, all was forgiven.
Back Then, His Words
Were Not Enough…Now
They Are Precious
We stopped on a road in Montana.
My father sat on the passenger side.
I turned off the car and poured out
my sorrows, my life falling apart,
all my landmarks gone.
He was silent. We listened to the river.
Two crows flew over. They could go
anywhere. The river flowed silver.
My father put his hand on my sleeve:
“Be of good heart, my friend.”
Gone to the Garden
In Viet Nam, when one retires,
people say, về vườn … Our friend
has ‘gone to the garden’
Now my garden appoints the seasons.
Now I take calls from jay and crow
as I open a row in dark earth.
Now I confer with seed of beet and gourd,
and with a tent of sticks and string
I offer the bean vines a path to heaven.
Instead of paper, mulch.
Instead of clock, dawn and dusk.
Instead of memo, memory—
bowing over potato ground
I greet my father’s shadow
lifting the hoe.
Rainy Day in the 40s
When my parents were in love and poor
just after the war, a hungry Sunday on Filbert street
in San Francisco they trod the pavement feeling glum.
Where Telegraph Hill came down they heard a sound,
looked up to see no one but an apple gleaming red,
rolling down into my father’s hand, and with his knife,
divided, it became their gritty sacrament they taught us:
bounty in small will be enough to fill your hand or cup
when hard times come.
Be kind, hold on, and remember to look up.
Wood too Good to Cut
Under the porch, this cedar plank,
impossibly wide, thick as my fist—
this one Curtis gave when he retired.
First I must build a room worthy
of the table it could be.
Behind the house, this redwood post
I pulled from the dump at Metolius
leans fragrant under the eave,
honored long in fragrant shade,
still standing as a sacred tree.
And this bolt of yew I cut north
from Fish Lake, bowing in the grove
with my folding saw, old snow still
on the ground around me, so my father
could make a bow, but then he died.
I need to be a boy again standing
at his knee before he can split it
with his hatchet from the war, then
shave it to a stave, gripping his
shattered knuckle of glass.
In Virus Hardship Now
I Remember How My Father
Pulled the Plow
That summer deep in the dirty thirties—dust bowl,
no job, bread line, lean time—my father and his
high school friend found an island in the Ninnescah
unclaimed under the fiery Kansas sun, drew straws to see
who would guide—or drag—the plow, and to my father
fell the horse’s chance, climbed into harness, bent low,
and pulled. From face to dust, sweat dripped as furrows
opened for their few seeds of corn and beans, pearling
buckets of Ninnescah slathering the rows, my father
growing strong enough for war.
Dew in the morning when he wore leather and brass
to drag old iron through earth, scant willow shade
at noon, whippoorwill at dusk, and then, over lazy
waters of the Ninnescah, the moon.