I suppose I generally write in persona for entirely predictable but nonetheless compelling reasons: to expand my imaginative range; to explore the pleasures of ventriloquism; to wrestle with the technical challenges involved; and perhaps above all, to escape, however briefly and imperfectly, from the prison of Self. In the case of "I Call to Remembrance My Song in the Night," I also found persona to be a way to approach very troubling subject matter that otherwise had resisted being written about. I cast it in the imagined voice of my late father-in-law, who was then in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. I think of it as simultaneously a tribute to him and an effort to understand--or at least express--the mystery of this disease.
I Call To Remembrance My Song In The Night
(Retired minister, returned to his boyhood farm, early stages of Alzheimer's)
This milk gone sour in my mouth.
This road to town overgrown,
humped and twisted as it wasn't
yesterday. Even those broad clouds
dazzled to newness, painful as chrome.
An ache I can't name--yet ordinary--
in this rippling laundry, garden of snowmelt
and rabbit track, where this morning
(I'm sure of it) I mended
this bowed and gaping fencewire tight.
I look to the further hills, Lord,
and see a darkening testament.
Faces I almost know in the poplar leaves,
voices windy and seamless
as winter waning. This pock pluck
of icicles dripping off the eaves,
waterclock of dissolution,
March sun honed on lightning rods
and snowflakes sublimed to air--
all this spendthrift jumble of creation
I see slipping, ruffled creek
running black with icy runoff.
And I am poured out like water.
These things I remember, these things I believe:
Once these crabbed fields flourished
with apples, corn, berries, acres of hay.
Splitting and chopping wood, grinding the blades,
hauling manure for compost, dipping buckets
into wellwater--here I might have planted myself
for good if it were not for Father.
He pitched drunkenly from this rocky farm
to town, then from one layoff to the next
nursed his growing silence, a rugged man
at best, vanished into his nightwatch.
My job to help Mother at the filling station
we opened down at the county road
while my brothers raced motorcycles
and the fields grew their sturdy brambles.
I hammered and sawed my way
through school and answered the call.
Like Jesus a carpenter, unlike him
I had no gift for talk, but plowed
these upgrown fields for sermons on duty,
parables of getting by: bees in the hive,
Lord, or the day my brothers and I
contrived a pulley and harness to raise Bill,
our swayback gelding who had plunged
down the old well.
Torn for kindling, burned,
what's left fallen to vines and poison ivy,
the old homeplace harvested in memory
(where else?)--and for our summer returnings
I built a cabin for my own family,
that they would know the blackberry thickets,
sweet August wind before a storm,
meat smoked in the dusky air, on this hillside
from which meadowlark and cicada
would preach what I couldn't.
Children scattered, wife taken by cancer,
and then our winter-shuttered cabin burned.
My days in the pulpit behind me,
still I could build, here where I'd built before.
I took another wife, I could do that,
and still know the heft of a hammer,
how to hit clean, shrilling the nail
true as faith, one final parable to build on.
Small dust that I am, where to now?
Letters to mail, was it, or a document
I do not trust to sign?
And why do you whisper, thin ones,
at window crack and weatherstrip?
I load the stove with seasoned maple,
wait for the glad crackle and sigh
to eddy at my feet like bathwater.
Listen, if any crying's to be done
I'll do it myself. Don't sing me fate
and pity, those lame dogs, those strays.
For if knowledge increases sorrow
I have the happiest disease, to grow
easier the more I slip away,
my every fumble erased as soon
as it happens, sun steaming the leaves
after a thundershower.
So don't pity me even if I tell you
ten times not to. Harder still,
don't pity yourself, for that love would drive
you as I am driven, when what I'll need,
what we've all always needed,
is the sweet bounty of fact: you must
wash me down like a child, make and tend
my lists without fuss or homily.
Don't cry. Load the stove, step back,
and watch it with me. I call this prayer.
But I forget, Lord, to eat my bread.
For the thing which I greatly feared
is come upon me: my face foul
with weeping, the waters hid
as with a stone, and the face of the deep frozen.
Thistles instead of wheat.
The waters forgotten of the foot.
Will you break a leaf driven to and fro?
Will you pursue the dry stubble?
These things I know, Lord,
I do not understand.
It's time to give gifts and make peace,
I think I can. Having eaten the bread
of tears long enough to know its salt savor,
I leave to my daughters and son
no single gift but these handfuls of water,
this smoke swirling air
soft as a dandelion puff, pollen blowing
across window screen and porch, a yellow sift
of dumb life scattered far
before settling to the earth.
Remember the thunder, how I soothed you each
in my arms watching the treeline flicker
in that strobe, smelling the ozone,
feeling on our foreheads the glad splash
of power, hearing in our stomachs
the drum of continuance.
Not for the last time I stand on this hill
before the house I made and kept
on the land I knew without thinking,
and I look away into the dusk,
past pines I planted, past old racetrack
and new golf course, past crimpled waters
of the creek where once my brother
pulled me a half-breath from drowning,
my brother dead now forty years himself.
I look past the rising treeline
to the airport twenty miles off,
where I still can catch the flinty gleam
of jets setting down in last light
like seeds, like tears, like dust motes in my eyes.
Where are my shoes?
That isn't my name, what you're calling.
These aren't my children you show me,
but photos somebody took, exhibits
in a show, a mad shopwindow
of mannequins grinning.
I get happy when the wind crows.
I had a wife once, you're not her.
Why don't you let me go home?
I get sad in this wind, call it peace.
I hear my father calling but won't heed.
David Graham has published two full-length books and four chapbooks, most recently Stutter Monk (Flume Press). With Kate Sontag, he also co-edited the essay anthology After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography (Graywolf Press). His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared widely, in print and online. He lives in Ripon, Wisconsin, where he is a professor of English at Ripon College.