One of my favourite poems about fathers (and sons) is by the late Stanley Kunitz. I encountered this poem in the last century, as an undergraduate, and it both confounded and thrilled me. Its dreamlike quality and its mythic power were immediately apparent and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. They still do. Those last two lines… Yet there is quotidian detail to anchor the poem — the odor of ponds, the information about the speaker’s sister, even the turtles and the lilies, so familiar to me from my walks over to the marsh on Hallowell Road where turtles bask on logs among yellow pond lilies. And the biblical echo, so haunting: “I lived on a hill that had too many rooms…”
Father and Son
Now in the suburbs and the falling light
I followed him, and now down sandy road
Whiter than bone-dust, through the sweet
Curdle of fields, where the plums
Dropped with their load of ripeness, one by one.
Mile after mile I followed, with skimming feet,
After the secret master of my blood,
Him, steeped in the odor of ponds, whose indomitable love
Kept me in chains. Strode years; stretched into bird;
Raced through the sleeping country where I was young,
The silence unrolling before me as I came,
The night nailed like an orange to my brow.
How should I tell him my fable and the fears,
How bridge the chasm in a casual tone,
Saying, “The house, the stucco one you built,
We lost. Sister married and went from home,
And nothing comes back, it’s strange, from where she goes.
I lived on a hill that had too many rooms;
Light we could make, but not enough of warmth,
And when the light failed, I climbed under the hill.
The papers are delivered every day;
I am alone and never shed a tear.”
At the water’s edge, where the smothering ferns lifted
Their arms, “Father!” I cried, “Return! You know
The way. I’ll wipe the mudstains from your clothes;
No trace, I promise, will remain. Instruct
Your son, whirling between two wars,
In the Gemara of your gentleness,
For I would be a child to those who mourn
And brother to the foundlings of the field
And friend of innocence and all bright eyes.
0 teach me how to work and keep me kind.”
Among the turtles and the lilies he turned to me
The white ignorant hollow of his face.
Did I feel like this about my own father — that he was absent from my life (Stanley Kunitz’s father committed suicide 6 weeks before his son was born so he truly was absent), that I would do anything to connect with him (“I’ll wipe the mudstains from your clothes…”), that finally he was in my life only as a deathly detached presence? No, I don’t feel like that, exactly. But of course my father was a mystery to me, as I know I was to him. He didn’t know me as I wanted to be known — but perhaps this is always true of our relationships with our parents. When he died I was in Venice. I learned of his death in a phone booth on a dark canal. It wasn’t unexpected but it was sad. I regretted not being there, not having told him the things I was grateful for: camping trips in childhood with his buckwheat pancakes for breakfast, burned on one side and undercooked on the other; the books he introduced me to (I still have his copy of Frederick Niven’s Wild Honey, easily the most evocative book I know about the Thompson Canyon and the small communities of the Boundary country); the patience he demonstrated when teaching my sons to fish. He surprised me once by telling me how much he’d liked Robert Kroetsch’s novel Badlands and that one day he wanted to drift down the Red Deer River on a raft. I told him if he did that, I’d join him. I wish we had. Would we have talked of things that matter and shared a sundowner of good whiskey? Who knows.
Here’s my dad, aged 2 or 3, outside his home in the middle of the badlands. Maybe it’s never too late to say thank you.