Self-portait as Baryshnikov’s Lover
How do you hold on to a man with such disdain for gravity? It’s not that he’s out of my reach; it’s that it’s so difficult to reach him. Those mournful eyes hover over me like a hot air balloon. I don’t know enough Russian to explain he’s got the Rapunzel story upside down. We are tethered by the most frail of strings—true love. It is hard to know which kiss will be a scissor, which will be a knot. I would like to blame it on the language barrier, and it’s true, our bodies do not speak the same vernacular. He would like to tie him to his wrist. I would like to tie him to the curl of my back. It is true that we also cannot agree which language to use when we speak of absence. Or how to describe the difference between how his body hollows my bed and how my body hollows his bed without using patryonimcs or patois. What is true: we can both walk gracefully from point A to point B. What is true: we can both walk gracefully together from point A to point B. What is true: We cannot agree on when to start or how long to take or what to do after. It’s difficult to hold on to woman who has such disdain for the gravity of the situation. It’s not that she’s out of his reach. it’s that it’s so difficult to know if she wants him to reach her.
Self-portrait as Daughter
I curl myself into your left side like a wound. I am a bruise who weeps noisily for a while then settles into a lifelong throb, trading fours with your heart’s dull thuds. You have spent your life wary of my friable edges, weary of searching the Internet for a cure. As you blur at the last edges of your life, the heart’s thud will slow then cease. I will be sorry and even then the ach and bawl of me will insist. And insist.
Self-portrait with giants
Today I am rife and ripe with giants. Their footsteps echo like fog, land like fury. To which untidy rooms of my body the giants are walking I’m not sure. How far a giant can walk I’m not sure nor how tenderly. What is known is more than one giant strides and sidles inside of me. Carcass, one calls me. Beloved, one calls me. As the day lies breaking they name me gift in quiet conversations punctuated by the noisy flapping of my heart against the streaked window of my chest, bemused and dazzled and baffled by its own reflection.
Self Portrait as What I’m Having For Dinner
You are what you eat, and tonight I am hungry for hunger. I have been too full these past months: a new pinot noir from the neighborhood wine shop, two helpings of Whole Foods macaroni-and-cheese, a small cherry pie carved up and eaten square inch by square inch, sorrow. Tonight I am steamed broccoli and curried channa that comes in a pouch I put in the microwave. Maybe if I can ease–again–that ache where waistband meets ache, I can ease–again–the clutch of my father’s fingers on my confused heart. There is still a piece of chocolate, the last till a party I may or may not get to in two weeks. A little bit of sweetness to end the year. Please.
I do not know what to write on this last day. Despite 28 days of writing about my father, despite nearly 44 years of having him as my father, I’m still not sure what the story is. What I want from him are words of love and apology. What I want to give to him are words of love and apology. It should be a simple transaction, but I do not yet see the story where that is how it ends. I do not think all can be forgiven, if in forgiving, you expect some sort of forgetting. If I forget the ways in which my father has wounded me, then I fear I will also forget him entirely. It doesn’t seem possible to remember afternoons spent around the kitchen table talking about how he will put up nets to keep the birds from the cherry trees some day, without also remembering the casual digs about my weight or the ways in which I exist for him only when I sit at that table. I think forgiveness is, instead, a sort of bearing of the good and the bad, of understanding that neither can be fully appreciated without the light of the other. Forgiveness, too, is worrying that you might forget, and understanding that what persists might be absence. But even in the happiest of relationships, isn’t that what lasts when the relationships is done? That knowing that something is missing? That knowledge that even if you were full of each other from beginning to end, at the death of one the other is left empty? Is it in the ending that I finally get the relationship I wanted all along, the one where there is a reason for the absence, and missing my father becomes another form of love?
This morning I watched Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, which is ostensibly a documentary about finding out that the father she grew up with is not her biological father. I say “ostensibly” because it is a film about more than genetics. Her biological father thinks he is the only one who knows the true story. While the multiple people she interviews—her siblings, the man she thought was her father, her later mother’s friends—each have slightly different versions of the story. No one knows Polley’s mother in exactly the same way, so no one can tell the same story of how or why she had an affair and how she was able to keep the secret of her daughter’s parentage for so long. There is a question, too, of what it means to make the story public—is it okay to tell the story outside of the family, what does it mean to make that family story into art, and who decides what is appropriate and what “appropriate” even means.
Even over these 27 days that I have been trying to tell the story of my father and me, I have only told part of the story. I know the story would look differently in his voice, or if I tried to ask him the questions I have asked myself. And I have not asked my siblings for their versions of the story, and I have not asked them to comment on the way I am telling the story. And there are things that would deepen the story I am telling that I cannot say because of who it might hurt, or the conversation it might start that I am not ready to have. I do not expect that when I officially finish this set of blog posts tomorrow that I will have a definitive narrative, or that I will have reached any conclusions. I do not expect that tomorrow will be the last I write about my father.
I expect that I will continue to measure the depth of his absence, to continue to wrestle with the accurate way to describe his place in my life—is he an absent presence or a present absence? I expect too that I will draw more dotted lines from my relationship with my father, to the consequences I struggle with today, at the same time as I continue to differentiate between what was done to me, and what I have done to myself. I will continue to wonder if it makes me disloyal in some way to tell this story, though I have heard from so many people how much my telling has helped them look at their own complicated relationships. I will continue to wonder if this is a type of healing or a type of passive-agressive revenge. I will wonder too why after so many years my father is still carrying around his own baggage from his parents, and if there was anything I ever could have done to help him begin to heal. I will wonder if I should have kept this to myself until after he’d died so I wouldn’t have to worry that one of his cousins might read the blog and tell him what I’m saying about him. I will wonder if there is some obvious part of the story I am missing cause of my own blinders born of selfishness or fear or simply not being old enough yet to recognize that particular blind spot. I will wonder, too, if there’s another way I should tell this story and maybe, sometimes, if I should tell it out loud at all?
Whatever the answers ultimately are—and I expect they will change day to day, year to year—the only thing I know for sure is that I’ve been telling this story for a very long time, in the poems I haven’t written, in the photographs that aren’t displayed, in the phone calls that aren’t placed. My own absence from the story has been a narrative in itself. And so the real question is not whose story is it, or who has the right to tell it, but do I have the courage to be present to it, no matter how difficult or dangerous the telling?
The sky is deep blue and cloudy. The air is crisp but not bitter, and all the way down Sligo to the 7-11 (for ice cream and ginger ale), I can smell the fireplaces hidden behind frosted panes. Nights like this, when it is quiet except for the electric buzz of light through windows and half-paned doors always remind me of the winter I spent in Provincetown, when sometimes I would wander home from a night out with my fellow writers and artists singing to the streetlights. In the poem I wrote about one such night, I wondered, “Did something in me break or was it fixed?” I think that as I have been writing these past 25 days, that it’s been a little of both. And for that I am thankful. For whatever alchemy lies between the act of breaking, the act of fixing, or, more accurately healing. And I am grateful, also, for all of you who have been with me for these 26 days, and for those of you who were there before, and for those of you who will linger on holding me up long after.
Did it really start when I sang Billie to
the streetlights on Pearl Street?
Was it at the front door with my key in the lock
that I realized I filled the spaces? Was it the shuffle
of painted toes on the front steps that showed me
how to curl myself into the gap of silence?
I don’t know what flipped the switch.
Did something in me break or was it fixed?
She looks the same. The right hand hovers
over the diaphragm, prays forth the vibrato.
Eyes clamp shut afraid of what else
her mouth is spinning with the sharps.
She pictures the music spuming from her head
to fill the corners of the room, her pores bleeding
autobiography. The song in her expands. Tongue
pushes teeth, chords start their incantation
calling rhythm from the air. Notes stain
her tongue a tattoo of grief and burning.
Someone said the other day that the fact I still have a relationship with my father shows I’ve forgiven him. Is that all forgiveness is—showing up despite the anger, despite how hollow and foreign “I forgive you” feels on your tongue? Is forgiveness, then, not a type of anesthesia? Does it have more in common with Tylenol than with morphine, the wound’s still in full bloom, you just feel it a little less? It would be better, perhaps, if forgiveness worked like amnesia, but if we are the sum total of our wounds, that is, if what we name “good” in ourselves is the same fruit as what we name “bad,” erupting from the same anger, the same grief and absence, then to want forgiveness to be amnesia is to undo not just part of but all of ourselves. What I have with my father doesn’t feel like forgiveness, but maybe I am just not wise enough to see it. I still expect to feel forgiveness, when it is a thing out of reach of the senses. Perhaps forgiveness is reading through dozens of Father’s Day cards to find the most innocuous one, that doesn’t lie but merely acknowledges. Perhaps forgiveness is thinking about what to get my father for Christmas when I know the small check I may get is neither guaranteed nor given ungrudgingly. Perhaps forgiveness is merely grace and courage—to bear the wound, to risk the hurts you know will come again.
I woke up thinking “There is grief here and something difficult to hold.” Poetry is the cruelest of tongues, the way it casually articulates what’s beyond speech then crows about its triumph. The quote is a line from a poem I wrote about a love affair I’ve never had but the man I held in my head as I wrote it is a man I would have liked to kiss if I didn’t find him so terrifying. Because he was a man. And talented. And tall. This morning my friend wrote about the line between fathers and would-be lovers, how indistinct it is. In another poem, I wrote, “Isn’t that what we want from our fathers/That they are the most tender,/most considerate of lovers?” I am not sure where my father belongs to me? Am I writing again about a man who I hold only in my head. My father and I reach to each other and all we can grab is sand. My father multiplies in me like cancer, the ache and absence of him. “Should have known it/would take a neon/walk down a weeping/street//to shape my tongue/round What I’ve/been missing…” And the father too glows like neon, like a UFO stranded in a landscape of pillow and blanket and mucus and bile. And my tongue furiously fingerspells. And the hands, empty, useless, try to keep up.
My father doesn’t want a funeral. I don’t remember if he believes in reincarnation or that when you die, your consciousness is just—poof!—gone. At the funeral of my grandmother—my father’s mother Rose—he said he couldn’t understand “why everyone was boohoo-ing.” According to him, she was dead, it was her fault for not taking care of her health issues, and that was that. I remember telling him that the funeral wasn’t for her, that it was for people who loved her to have time to grieve as a community. He was singularly unimpressed. I was supposed to stand up and say thank you to to everyone on behalf of her four grandchildren, but I couldn’t face all the eyes and not knowing the right words. I didn’t know what to say about the woman who had just died. The grandmother I knew had long passed; when we went to visit I didn’t recognize the gaunt, silent woman stretched out on the hospital bed like a fish on ice, eyes wide and staring. She didn’t look like a woman who had been to Russia and Israel with her senior citizens group, who watched the Mets religiously, who could still play the “Hallelujah Chorus” as vigorously on the organ as when she’d been a young woman, newly converted from Catholicism to a more pentecostal strain of Christianity because God had answered her prayer and healed her only son from a grave illness after the protestant preacher came visiting.
My father wants to be cremated. I don’t think he even wants a memorial service, but I can’t imagine not gathering with my father’s brothers and his cousins to hear them swap stories of being young and poor and fearless and desperate to leave Guyana and Trinidad. Before they’d learned in how many different ways their own hearts were already broken. Before they ached that heartbreak into their wives and their children. I am already starting to not recognize my father. His hair is gone. His body is disappearing into the valleys of bedsheets and pajamas. He is not sitting at the computer when I get there scheming how to watch cricket for free, or at the kitchen table gorging on peanuts as he talks about the Mets or why he voted for Obama the first time “to be on the right side of history” or how we’d know about money if we’d only grown up with him.
When my father dies, he will be gone. My father will die and maybe I’ll ask his wife if I can take the vinyl records that have been languishing in a cupboard for decades. And maybe she’ll tell me they are for her son, and maybe I won’t care and take them anyway. When my grandmother Rose died, my sister and I were allowed to go into a closet where some of her things lingered and take what we wanted, my youngest brother alternately insisting the whole time that my grandmother wasn’t really dead, and that everything we took was exactly what he wanted to keep. I feel instead of “When my grandmother Rose died,” I should write “Weeks after my grandmother….” or “Months after my grandmother….,” but I don’t know if I’m remembering truth or anger. I took two silver vintage evening purses, one of which my grandmother is wearing in a beautiful photo of her in a pink gown at a formal event, I took a piano-shaped rhinestone brooch, which I never wear because it’s too kitschy, and I took another brooch in simulated tortoise, a capital “R.” My sister took all of my grandmother’s hats. I wanted my grandmother’s piano, but it was claimed for my youngest brother. He is a talented musician, but, still, the piano languishes in the garage year by year becoming more dust than piano.
What will anchor me to my father when he is gone? Sometimes if I stare into the mirror, I see glimpses of his face, but mostly it’s my mother who’s usurping my face more and more each year. I don’t have any stories that start, “My father really encouraged me to…” or “The best advice my father ever gave me was….” My father will leave me absence, he will leave me grief, but how will I be able to tell this new grief, this new absence from what I have carried with me all these long years? What new character will my father’s death bruise into the wounds that still occasionally purple my skin when I am handled roughly, or I let someone else too far in? I want to know for sure that even as I myself drift toward becoming more dust than body, for as long as I persist, then yes, for my father, there will be life after death, that, even in death, he will insist in me.