Among Every Three Fathers, One Will
Make it new.
Five thousand years of history! What new?!
Here is a long, dark hall lined with pictures of fathers and poems. The fathers have captions affixed to their frames. If you lean in close, you can read them. The poems are caption-less, sufficient. Heard at one end of the hallway: an American girl playing Beethoven, Saint-Saëns, Bach on an upright piano, a German mother playing a secondhand violin, a Chinese father whistling Madame Butterfly with gusto. Sometimes the tock of a metronome, sometimes the tap of a small foot. At the other end of the hallway: silence. Words from various languages hang in the air between. One has the sense of rooms nearby, other halls, perhaps one less dark, perhaps one lined with pictures of mothers and girls.
The first father is mine by birth. His forehead is high, concealing an abnormally large brain, a vast but strange intelligence. His hair is as black as the sea that carried him from China to America. His eyes, also black, verge on blue; their color fluctuates between sea and sky. They are beautiful, legally blind. His skin is hairless, olive, well-oiled, mysteriously elastic. How old is he? We don’t know. His mouth is a chaos of crooked teeth, tiny yellow tombstones planted every which way. The names of their dead have been hammered beyond recognition by almonds, apples, melon seeds, prune drops, dried plums, ice cubes. Despite their haphazard formation, the teeth masticate with utter efficiency. We see peanuts ground to butter in seconds, bananas to mash. He devours his food like one who has known starvation. His mouth constantly opens in song, in smile, in screams—further proof of his appetite. The caption, written in his very own words, reads: Never trust anyone, not even your daddy.
A head as large as my father’s but longer in the jaw, full, but less round, jowly, a generous neck and a soft, slow body to match. Skin the color of almond meat, large-pored, pockmarked in places as if in reference to a struggling, unhandsome youth. His hair, the texture of foliage at a distance, the color of bark turning to smoke, recedes like a troop of soldiers away from the front. The nose threatens to take over the face, friendly as a landmark. The mouth, always in motion like an often-used hourglass, fills and empties, one way and then the other. Eyes of a joker, watchful, tired, twinkling, at once at rest and measuring. A blue dress shirt covers, for the most part, his hairy torso, though sprigs spring up from the chest at the shirt’s opening. It is the blue of corporations. In his closet at home, there are twenty more like it. All Brooks Brothers. All blue. All varying in softness according to wear. His caption, like a war cry, reads: The poet wants justice.
My father was obsessed with justice. Before immigrating he was a superior court judge. Later, when he became an American professor of engineering, he continued his relentless pursuit of justice. As children we knew him as a pugilist. He regularly took individuals to court; he sued the government, the IRS, the State of California. To me, as a child, the most significant case was my father versus Mrs. E.
We had driven to another town an hour away. She lived at the town’s edge in a mobile home park. Her mobile home was carpeted and the ceilings were low, but there were beautiful things on the tables and on the walls. Jeweled lamps and lace doilies, original paintings and glass dishes filled with candies wrapped in cellophane. We had come to buy her piano. It was blacker than my father’s eyes and as striking. Clearly, it was Mrs. E’s most prized possession.
I wondered why she would sell it, not thinking then of poverty. Her hair was white, her eyes a watery blue, and she seemed honest enough to us. We never doubted that the piano would be ours as soon as Father came back with the rest of the money and the borrowed truck. But when he returned a few days later as promised, she refused to let him have it. Perhaps she had found another source of income or perhaps she had been overcome by nostalgia or perhaps she simply didn’t want him to have it. In any case, she refused to sell Father the piano—which she had promised him, just as he had promised me—and so he fought her the way he fought everyone.
He took her to court. We children had witnessed everything, but being too young to take the stand, we sat in the front of the court room with Mother. During our father’s speech in broken English we heard Mrs. E hiss from the back: Pack of lies! It was our father’s foreign word against an old white lady’s. He lost the case and we found another used piano, an upright Bush & Lane with roses carved into its dark brown wood. I’ve forgotten now where it came from. I played it happily (though it was, without a doubt, an inferior instrument) but not without remembering from time to time that first piano. I had the sense that no one, not Mrs. E, not anyone, would ever play the black piano again. Later, when I knew she must have died (for she was very old when we came to her house), I wondered what had become of it. American justice system, my father would say, is corrupt! Pack of lies! he’d say sarcastically, mimicking Mrs. E. He mimicked her and then later, when he was out of earshot, we mimicked him mimicking her.
Same landmark nose, same troops receding to the back of the head, another blue shirt, his self-invented uniform, this one worn, faded. Large head bowed, hands folded as if in prayer or pleading. Marks from the sofa’s piping on his face. Caption reads: The poet wants mercy.
Father left his judiciary post after receiving a series of death threats. He had little mercy for criminals and had handed down several unpopular verdicts. In our house every incident called for a trial. Father the judge, others the criminals. Promises, whether declared by him or by us, were written on the calendar and signed. He, of course, had the power to pardon us. Though no one, not Mother, not Sister, not I, had the power to pardon him.
He promised that if I practiced piano for seven hours without rest, he would pay me twenty dollars. He wrote the contract in English on the calendar. I was nine or ten. Twenty dollars sounded to me like so much chocolate and chewing gum. For seven hours I filled the silent house with music. Music was mercy, my freedom from speech, my freedom from being spoken to. The others were imprisoned in the house with him while I hid in the mercy of variations. When I was not playing the piano, the house was silent, except for the sound of his voice. This, also his ruling. Quiet, I’m working. Quiet, I’m reading. Quiet, I’m trying to talk.
Listen to me, he was fond of saying. You never listen.
At the age of eight I began composing. I began to listen to the keys and not to anything else. Allegro. Andante. Largo. Forte. I obeyed the Italian commands of dead Germans and the house disappeared.
The troops have almost receded behind the brush-covered slope of his head. His crisp blue shirt, the same as the others, but newer, brighter, recently given to him as a gift. The insomniac eyes give a clue to nights he spends reading, writing poems, in attempt to lull himself to sleep. Lullabies to the self. Music in the form of words. Like my piano, but quieter and when the rest are asleep. The caption, a phrase he repeats to himself as he lies awake: The poetic word can only be delivered formally.
My father too had a series of battle cries, verdicts, lullabies that he sang to himself in our presence:
· American justice system is corrupt!
· Pack of lies!
· Never forget your Mother Country! Your Mother Country is China!
· Do you know how long I wear these clothes? Twenty years! Twenty!
· Your daddy works like a dog all day so you can eat!
· You don’t know what it’s like to starve!
· Five thousand years of history!
· Practice makes perfect!
The justice he sought so avidly in the world was absent from our house. I was to learn and practice only classical European forms of music, which I grew to love. European habits and standards became my own and the music of any other tradition was unknown to me. It was as if no other music existed. For even the songs I composed myself were imitations of the European dead whom I’d been taught to love and to emulate. What is music and what is poetry and who decides?
Here is a Polish father. The hair like light snowfall on each side of the tender tundric head. Skin prone to burning, on the cheeks a touch of rose, the flush from a daily expectancy. The eyes inquisitive, cunning, impish, secretive. The mouth twisted, almost puckered, half-pursed like a woman’s in a sly pout. The hands also tender, pink as the cheeks, are smooth. They do not use shovels or lift sacks of grain; they write poems. The fingernails are clean and white but look fragile, as if they might snag or break easily. But it is the unruly eyebrows that define his face, like the hairy thatched rooftops of country cottages. They invite caricature and awe, yes, those wiggly dark caterpillars startle next to snow and roses. They are a cover for something more than the eyes. The caption, something he says in the voice he uses to say most things, half-joking, half-serious, quoting Eliot: We do not know what poetry is.
· Picture of my father on an ocean liner.
· The black piano.
· Beethoven’s Variations on a Swiss Air.
· Saint-Saëns’s Concerto in G Minor.
· Seven hours of mercy.
· A one-thousand-word letter from my father written on a 3x5 card.
· My first musical composition.
· Father’s passport—so many pages, so many stamps.
Is this poetry? Not this, as in the list, but these, as in each image. If the poetic word can only be delivered formally, it is necessary to know what qualifies as form. Then, too, we will find out who qualifies as poet. If we do not know what poetry is, we do not know what form is and hence we do not recognize the poet. What is justice? Where can it be found? In which country? In whose?
The back of his blue shirt is dark with sweat. It’s summer. He’s sitting on the porch reading William Carlos Williams in the middle of the night. He pauses to look for stars and then, finding the black sky empty, returns to reading “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.” He uses a few of Williams’s lines for his caption:
It is difficultto get the news from poemsyet men die miserably every dayfor lackof what is found there.
One morning, very early, my father walks through the hall in his slippers and stops to read caption X. It does not look to him like poetry, but like “chopped up prose.” Why those line breaks? Why that spacing? The poem confounds him. To his multilingual ear, there is no particular rhythm, nor do the words seem to be doing the “figural work of poetry,” the sort he associates with the classical Chinese poetry of his childhood. In his ear and his eye the poem fails, though he likes what the words have to say. Is it still poetry?
Forever a pugilist, he takes Williams to court. He sues him for writing chopped up prose and passing it off as poetry. It is my father’s word against the American poet’s. My father loses the case.
In any given piece of music, silence is as important as sound. Hence devices like the rest, the fermata, staccato, hence the metronome. Ceaseless music, like ceaseless silence, would mean the end of time. The face of each (music, silence) pales, even disappears without the other. And yet the lyric, which alternates deliberately between them as if to ensure time, is described as time-stopping. How are we to understand this? Perhaps the condition of eternality is not the same as the condition of no time. No time is frightening in its sense of dislocation, in its utter nothingness which might be unfathomably vast or claustrophobically small; whether it is one or the other we can’t know and that unknown is the most daunting element of no time, why we have watches, calendars, metronomes. While the eternal lyric captures time, it is not no time, but all time or a particular moment held and understood forever. This is why we have poetry. Because we are frightened both in the face of time and in the face of no time. Because we strive to locate ourselves. Though is the why of poetry also the what of poetry? Is poetry anything that fulfills poetry’s function?
The father is pictured with a son—a student—and the two men are in conversation. It is an unusual picture for framing, clearly a candid shot, ill-composed. The father looks not at the camera but at the son, who, not meeting the father’s eye, looks ahead of himself at something or someone outside the frame. The father wears squarish eyeglasses whose upper horizon obscures his eyelids from view. Eyebrows raised, arched, are at attention, the full lips closed yet sensual, the ears large. The hair on his head is disheveled; sparse puffs of varying colors lie down and stand up according to the way night’s pillow has pressed against them. His tie is loose, his old coat rumpled. His body is turned toward the younger man expectantly, both waiting and prodding, urging and in suspension. Half the right hand, its meaty forefinger, its muscular thumb, is visible at the lower edge of the photograph and clasps the chair. The father uses his hand to steady himself; he uses his eyes to see. The father’s caption, which appears alongside the son’s: Discourse about poetry is displaced discourse about persons.
My father, though not a writer, kept a series of notebooks. Written mostly in Chinese, with only a few words or numbers in English, they were the first bilingual texts I ever saw. I never understood them. As much as I tried, I was never able to sniff out a context, guess at the gist or theme of the books. Were they work-related plans? Personal outpourings? Titillating secrets? Mundane daily reports? Fiction? Nonfiction? I had no idea. My father’s code, as far as my child’s mind could read, was unbreakable. The notebooks remain in my mind today as sheaves of mystery.
It is easy to see why I have an interest in dictionaries, glossaries, notes, keys, legends. How my child’s heart would have leapt at the sight of such a thing nestled in the back pages of one of my father’s notebooks. To read his thoughts, even mechanically, word by unfamiliar word, would have been a thrill. Were they words like engine, coordinates, logarithm? Or were they melancholy, homesick, alone? When occasionally I came across an Arabic number, say 200, I would wonder: 200 what? Pounds? Dollars? Miles? Times he had thought about home that day? Days until he would leave us? I searched the surrounding shelves, closets, drawers, for a dictionary. I combed through his personal belongings (cardboard boxes, brown envelopes, paper bags, trouser pockets, vinyl billfolds, metal film cans) in search of the smallest clue.
The disheveled, spectacled father is pictured with a pen in his hand, his attentive eyes are closed in prayer. Hundreds of books by other poets line the wall behind him. He is a poet who wants justice for writer and reader. He who reads as he writes and vice versa. What will he write next? And in what language? Caption: The untranslatability of poetic speech is a non-negotiable aspect of its seriousness.
My father was in the habit of quoting Confucius. For years one of his favorite quotes was: Among every three, one will be your teacher.
In this picture, he is on the telephone talking to me. I am hundreds of miles away, not pictured. His eyes are bright, fanatical. His wife’s hand, a blur, enters the frame from the left, offering a cup of tea, which I know to be chrysanthemum. Later, he’ll add honey, and after he drinks, a few of the papery blossoms will stick to his mouth.
The caption, the part of our conversation I love best: You remember Confucius—among every three, one will be your teacher? Today I change Confucius! From now on: Everyone is your teacher.
When we walk through the hall together, my father points with his middle finger at every picture that is not him. This is not your father and this is not your father and this is not your father. Who are these guys?
He stops before the father in blue: This guy looks like big shot. Never trust big shots. What is the meaning of this? Same shirt, over and over. If you are a poor man, this is good, this is practical. If you are a rich man, this is nonsense. False modesty. Lack of effort.
Justice for whom? he wants to know. Shenma formal?
Then he stops before the Polish father. This guy looks like Mr. Nice Guy. Never trust Mr. Nice Guys. Eyebrows black, beard is white. This is bad omen. Inconsistent, not dependable. Look at the mouth. Kisses the camera. Charming fox. How can a poet not know what poetry is? No such a thing. I tell you this guy is a fox.
The disheveled, spectacled father is the last to receive my father’s scrutiny. Clothes not too good, hair not too good. Americans are sloppy. But this guy is a good guy, good teacher. The eyes watch, the ears listen. A good teacher knows how to learn from others. Confucius was like this. Yes this guy is a good guy. But don’t trust him. Don’t trust anyone.
As we near the end of the hall, the sound of Saint-Saëns played by my eleven-
year-old hands meets us. Nearby, Mother’s rosin sweeps across her bow.
In the early years of my childhood, when we all still shared one house, one hallway opening out into one music room, there were various sorts of silence in our life. There was the silence of the many-storied university library, which my father, and therefore we, his family, had access to. We climbed the stairs to the third floor, to the curriculum section. Here were all the books for children. That silence was punctuated by the rustling of pages, the coughing of adults (for there were no other children there), the clicking of our shoes against the wood floors, the quiet harp sound of my sister’s corduroy pant legs strumming against each other each time she climbed a new stair. The stacks of books we carried were heavy as rocks. They pressed down on our hands and muffled the sound of our pulses.
On Sundays, there was the silence of mass, which Father sent us to while he stayed home in his study. Though before we passed the silent blue-robed statues and into the church, there was the silence of our walk through the neighborhood, up the hill and then through the silent field that held our shortcut. The three of us were uncharacteristically quiet en route to mass. Mother, perhaps already in prayer, was no more than the sound of a handmade dress being walked in. I often ran ahead to the field, the sound of my own running a kind of silence too. In the church, silence always came with tiny flames and then smoke, once the candles had gone out. It was diminished by song, every parishioner’s mouth opening. The priest’s amplified words, our murmured responses. Prayer in silence is like poetry in time. It is told in silence but stopping silence too, as poetry is told in time and stops time. For aren’t our heads filled with sound as we pray, the sound of our own voices speaking to God?
The common silence, which in some way contained all other silences and in so doing was familiar to us, was the silence of the house, a silence our father demanded. That silence was largely associated with reading and thinking, our house a kind of library or church for serious devotees. Ostensibly, we were to be quiet so that our father might think and read and so that we might learn from his example and do the same. The only sound permitted in the house was music. Sister’s flute, Mother’s violin, Father’s whistling, my piano. Now it strikes me that the sound my father tolerated best—music—was a language-free sound and I can’t help but think that his insistence on silence was not, as we felt it was then, a tyrannical erasure of our voices, but a reprieve from the chatter of English, that loud and sloppy language that so impinged upon him. And yet, even in English, our father was garrulous, his voice was the only sound more familiar to us than music.
There was nothing in our lives that was not transformed by our father’s immigrant status. Silence and music were not exceptions; each, poem-like, was “an instrument for thinking.”
An empty space on the wall. I find myself in the position of writing poems that garner approval from other fathers but go misunderstood by my beloved father, or poems that communicate clearly to my beloved father which other fathers criticize as being formally naïve, the “poetry of ideas,” “not really poems.” Then I think: You are not my father and you are not my father and you are not my father. I turn to my birth father and try to speak to him in a language that he would understand. The poetry I strive for is a song he would recognize.
However, the simplicity of this approach is not always sufficient. I once wrote a poem about my father called “Trees,” whose central image was a pear tree. He was quite critical of the poem when it came out in a literary journal and cited the discrepancy between the plural “trees” of the title and the single tree of the poem. The poem was soon to be reprinted in a state assessment test and he wanted me to “correct” the title before the reprint was released. I imagined the test question: What do the trees represent? I could not help but think that to most literary test takers, it would be clear that the “Trees” of the title referred to more than just the single pear tree in the poem and that my literal-minded father was missing a nuance due to his temperament and not due to my having written an opaque poem. I refused to “correct” it.
This incident has always stood out in my mind as evidence against my own claim of writing poetry for my beloveds, or in this case, for my father. If I had truly written the poem for him and him alone, would I not have immediately “corrected” the perceived discrepancy? On the one hand, the literary journal’s approval (not to mention the assessment test makers’) meant little to me in the face of my father’s criticism, and yet when I refused his suggestion I was certainly serving someone or something. If not the literal beloved, then whom?
Perhaps time’s intervention will clarify. Perhaps I write not for my literal father or fathers, nor for a false father divorced from the one who fathered me, but for an eternal father who is a version of my own, a version who outlives him.
It is a hall of patience. For eyes. For ears. Now it is dark and the urge I have had so often to turn the pictures toward the wall has vanished. The dark takes care of everything. I am a girl who plays piano for seven hours with a metronome clacking behind the tune like a clock, so that when at last the dark comes, I am tired. My back is tired of straightening, my feet are tired of pedaling, and my hands, my tiny horses, have galloped for miles. If I said hall I meant tunnel. If I said play I meant pray. If I said father I meant memory. If I said God I meant world, I meant will.
How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch.
Two Cities: On Exile, History, and the Imagination by Adam Zagajewski.
The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers by Allen Grossman.