The Father of My Country

All fathers in Western civilization must have
a military origin. The
he is
was the
general at one time or other.
And George Washington
won the hearts
of his country—the rough military man
with awkward
drawing-room manners.

My father;
have you ever heard me speak of him? I seldom
do. But I had a father,
and he had military origins—or my origins from
are military,
militant. That is, I remember him only in uniform. But of the navy,
30 years a chief petty officer,
always away from home.

It is rough/hard for me to speak
I'm not used to talking
about him.
Not used to naming his objects/
that never surrounded me.

A woodpecker with fresh bloody crest
at my mouth. Father, for the first
time I say
your name. Name rolled in thick Polish parchment scrolls,
name of Roman candle drippings when I sit at my table
alone, each night,
name of naval uniforms and name of
telegrams, name of
coming home from your aircraft carrier,
name of shiny shoes.
name of Hawaiian dolls, name
of mess spoons, name of greasy machinery, and name of
stencilled names.
Is it your blood I carry in a test tube,
my arm,
to let fall, crack, and spill on the sidewalk
in front of the men
I know,
I love,
I know, and
want? So you left my house when I was under two.
being replaced by other machinery (my sister), and
I didn’t believe you left me.
                   This scene: the trunk yielding treasures of
                   a green fountain pen, heart shaped mirror,
                   amber beads, old letters with brown ink, and
                   the gopher snake stretched across the palm tree
                   in the front yard with woody trunk like monkey skins,
                   and a sunset through the skinny persimmon trees. You
                   came walking, not even a telegram or post card from
                   Tahiti. Love, love, through my heart like ink in
                   the thickest nibbed pen, black and flowing into words
                   You came, to me, and I at least six. Six doilies
                   of lace, six battleship cannon, six old beerbottles,
                   six thick steaks, six love letters, six clocks
                   running backwards, six watermelons, and six baby
                   teeth, a six cornered hat on six men's heads, six
                   lovers at once or one lover at sixes and sevens;
                   how I confuse
                   all this with my
                   walking the tightrope bridge
                   with gold knots
                   the mouth of an anemone/tissue spiral lips
                   and holding on so that the ropes burned
                   as if my wrists had been tied

If George Washington
had not
been the Father
of my Country
it is doubtful that I would ever have
a father. Father in my mouth, on my lips, in my
tongue, out of all my womanly fire,
Father I have left in my steel filing cabinet as a name on my birth
certificate, Father I have left in the teeth pulled out at
dentists’ offices and thrown into their garbage cans,
Father living in my wide cheekbones and short feet,
Father in my Polish tantrums and my American speech, Father, not a
holy name, not a name I cherish but the name I bear, the name
that makes me one of a kind in any phone book because
you changed it, and nobody
but us
has it,
Father who makes me dream in the dead of night of the falling cherry
blossoms, Father who makes me know all men will leave me
if I love them,
Father who made me a maverick,
a writer,
a namer,
name/father, sun/father, moon/father, bloody mars/father,
other children said, “My father is a doctor,”
“My father gave me this camera,”
“My father took me to
the movies,”
“My father and I went swimming,”
my father is coming in a letter
once a month
for a while,
and my father
sometimes came in a telegram
my father came to me
in sleep, my father because I dreamed in one night that I dug
through the ash heap in back of the pepper tree and found a diamond
shaped like a dog, and my father called the dog and it came leaping
over to him and he walked away out of the yard down the road with
the dog jumping and yipping at his heels,

my father was not in the telephone book
in my city;
my father was not sleeping with my mother
at home;
my father did not care if I studied the
my father did not care what
I did;
and I thought my father was handsome and I loved him and I wondered
he left me alone so much,
so many years
in fact, but
my father made me what I am,
a lonely woman,
without a purpose, just as I was
a lonely child
without any father. I walked with words, words, and names,
names. Father was not
one of my words.
Father was not
one of my names. But now I say, “George, you have become my father,
in his 20th century naval uniform. George Washington, I need your
love; George, I want to call you Father, Father, my Father,”
Father of my country,
that is,
me. And I say the name to chant it. To sing it. To lace it around
me like weaving cloth. Like a happy child on that shining afternoon
in the palmtree sunset with her mother’s trunk yielding treasures,
I cry and
have you really come home?

Diane Wakoski, “The Father of My Country” from Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987. Copyright © 1988 by Diane Wakoski. Reprinted with the permission of David R. Godine/Black Sparrow Press,
Source: Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987 (1988)
More Poems by Diane Wakoski