My father who is 70 never tells me “I love you.” I used to say it at the end of our phone calls. “I love you” followed by the sharp thud of a heavy silence. I imagined my words falling out of my mouth like a spray of bullets aimed at my father’s right ear. Or like a small stone hurled from my slingshot jaw, my father the dark well that swallows it up. I don’t know if my words landed, but, not being a student of alchemy or geography, of comedy or bad luck, I didn’t realize that the bottom of this well was flooded with the only known water in the world that reflects nothing back, that it is, in fact, a celestial well, home to a black hole and the carcasses of well-meant phrases dead before their time. Or perhaps it’s just that the bottom of this well, the well that it is my father, is a long way down. Longer than the eye can see or the brain can comprehend. Deeper than any magic spell can reach, or any daughter. My words are falling still. Hundreds, or maybe tens (I can’t remember when I learned not to say it) are tumbling down and down, sometimes I-love-you, sometimes you-I-love, sometimes I-love, the “you” lost somewhere between 1999 and 2006, tumbling like a pantoum or a rock slide or that waterfall near where my cousins live in Trinidad. Maybe my father still hasn’t heard me. And when he does, if the words still mean the same (already the “I” has shed several skins, the “you” is dying more quickly than he used to of cancer, of diabetes, of lack), I hope I’m not listening with the ear that doesn’t work as well after years of concerts spend right up against the stage’s lip, embosomed by the speakers. I hope the language hasn’t changed so much that the word sounds familiar but I don’t quite recognize it.
My father lived with us till I was about eight going on nine. I have plenty of memories of being a tween with him and I have plenty of memories of visiting my father’s father and stepmother with both my mom and dad as a kid. But I have very few memories of him in the house with us, partly I suppose because our schedules were opposite–he worked nights, and I worked days, so to speak. We lived in a semi-detached house adjacent to a string of vacant storefronts (at least I don’t remember any actually businesses) that were constantly burning down. (Ultimately they paved paradise and put up a Burger King and its parking lot.) This poem is based on a faint memory I have of watching the building closest to us burn one night.
Theme and Variations on a December Night
We stand at the window, my sister and I
the house next door burning, our house
night-hushed but for the hum
of sleepy eyes opening, closing.
Houses further down our neck of
Merrick Road empty
their families, parade of sneakers, slippers,
bare feet. Arms wide with books
and photographs and children. My father
urges our small faces to the window
overhead his camera sighs and clicks.
I don’t wonder how long Daddy will wait
before herding us to the street. I know
we won’t leave—this time or the twice more
that house burns. I know already
my father will choose another time to leave
arms wide with books and photographs.
We are always practicing for fires.
We stand at the window.
I want to remember so
I can tell the story of us watching. So
I can tell a story about not leaving.
There is a window.
I am standing at the window.
At the window I am standing
my blue gingham nightgown blinking.
A house next door burns.
Next door a house is burning.
One house in a long block of houses.
In a long row of houses
end to end chimney to chimney
a girl watches.
Books and photographs are carried by others.
A burning house is left by others.
There are books. There are photographs. There are children.
this bird wing
for the father
to arrive the father
to show his awesome powers
know with uncertainty the father
the underbelly of salvation
his great burning wings
the relentless gossip
of fire her skin