I hit my first AWP Conference this year in Chicago. It was quite a trip. I saw some old Chicago friends and met a few new ones. I walked up Wabash in the beating, slushy rain. I ruminate all around town on the rattling El. It was also an opportunity to spend some time with Daniel Wallace, who jetted off to England about a week later. I caught a few good panels and peeped some cool presses at the book fair. By far, my favorite reading of the week was off-site. Poet M.L. Liebler has compiled an anthology of work poetry called Working Words, which features a lot of poets I enjoy, including Jim Daniels and Woody Guthrie.
One of the poets in attendance that night was Maria Mazziotti Gillan, a fellow New Jerseyian. She read the following poem, after which I remarked to my pal Mark, “now that’s a poem.” I love the honesty of the poem and the admission of the transgression and the guilt it engenders. That final image is so heartbreakingly beautiful and satisfying.
It makes me think about my own parents. Not specifically them (I mean, yes, them), but also Parents. What happens to us that we are somehow embarrassed by our folks? What was it for me? I am sure if I interrogate it, I will find it, and I will make that my challenge.
Daddy We Called You
“Daddy” we called you, “Daddy”
when we talked to each other in the street,
pulling on our American faces,
shaping our lives in Paterson slang.
Inside our house, we spoke
a Southern Italian dialect
mixed with English
and we called you “Papa”
but outside again, you became Daddy
and we spoke of you to our friends
as “my father”
imagining we were speaking
of that “Father Knows Best”
in his dark business suit,
carrying his briefcase into his house,
retreating to his paneled den,
his big living room and dining room,
his frilly-aproned wife
who greeted him at the door
with a kiss. Such space
and silence in that house.
We lived in one big room-
living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom,
all in one, dominated by the gray oak dining table
around which we sat, talking and laughing,
listening to your stories,
your political arguments with your friends,
Papa, how you glowed in company light,
happy when the other immigrants
came to you for help with their taxes
or legal papers.
It was only outside that glowing circle
that I denied you, denied your long hours
as night watchman in Royal Machine Shop.
One night, riding home from a date,
my middle class, American boyfriend
kissed me at the light; I looked up
and met your eyes as you stood at the corner
near Royal Machine. It was nearly midnight.
January. Cold and Windy. You were waiting
for the bus, the streetlight illuminating
your face. I pretended I did not see you,
let my boyfriend pull away, leaving you
on the empty corner waiting for the bus
to take you home. You never mentioned it,
never said that you knew
how often I lied about what you did for a living
or that I was ashamed to have my boyfriend see you,
find out about your second shift work, your broken English.
Today, remembering that moment,
still illuminated in my mind
by the streetlamp’s gray light,
I think of my own son
and the distance between us,
greater than miles.
I honor the years you spent in menial work
slipping down the ladder
as your body failed you
while your mind, so quick and sharp,
longed to escape,
honor the times you got out of bed
after sleeping only an hour,
to take me to school or pick me up;
the warm bakery rolls you bought for me
on the way home from the night shift.
to the editors
of local newspapers.
better than any “Father Knows Best” father,
bland as white rice,
with your wine press in the cellar,
with the newspapers you collected
out of garbage piles to turn into money
you banked for us,
with your mouse traps,
with your cracked and calloused hands,
with your yellowed teeth.
dragging your dead leg
through the factories of Paterson,
I am outside the house now,
shouting your name.