Handing the Self Back

I’ve been writing for over forty years now, a span that makes it possible to reread some old poems from the reality side of a once imagined future. Written in 1981, this early  poem printed here is an example. There’s more than nostalgia for me when taking another look.

We’d moved during the winter, my three children nine, six, and three at the time. In the spring, I began to take walks with one of them each night. We lived in the middle of a small college town, and because the streets were new to all of us, each direction we turned brought something seen fresh.

The nine-year-old seemed to need those walks the most. School was more awkward for someone new in fourth grade than for his sister in first or his younger brother not yet enrolled in nursery school. My transition was easier. I’d been a high school teacher, but now I was working at a university. It was more than being the best teacher I could be. It included expectations about my writing and publishing.

I was seldom at home before the older ones went to school. I’d become an early riser, and for the first time I had an office in which I could seclude myself from six to eight a.m. If I was immersed in a project, I’d often come home for breakfast after they were gone.

Even in summer, because I had administrative duties that required me to be on campus from 9 to 4, I kept that schedule. An ideal working life, really, the extra hours “at work” as important personally as they were professionally, but for my children a puzzle because school was “closed,” so my absence seemed more selfish to them.

Now there was an urgency to the walks. Where we’d lived before, we’d had a fenced in yard that attracted kids of all ages. I was happy to let off steam after school by being an informal recreation director, even in winter when the upstate New York weather drifted snow up and over that fence. The yard was smaller now and close to useless for anything but mowing.

I was happier now. I felt rewarded and appreciated for my writing. But my older son, though he’d made new friends, was still tied to memories. The walks became more than compensation. There was something very much like joy that emerged from those evenings of selflessness. There was also a self-awareness that gnawed at me even as I immersed myself in my work. My father had often kept to himself because of work and what seemed to be an innate reticence.

I kept my misgivings to myself. If my son had them, he did so as well. Already, he showed an interest in and a talent for writing.

Handing the Self Back
Maybe I can anticipate the sense
My son will make of me, writing,
Thirty years from now,
One of those poems about his father,
How he wished me dead or understood
Nothing because I never spoke.
The copyright on my moods
Will be hidden in his house,
Tucked back in the closet,
Rustling in the night to disturb
His sleep. He will wake angry
And unable to explain himself.
“This grease spot,” my father said,
Pointing, “was a little boy
Who got too close,” and I believed
Everything he said until
I could not listen, but I never
Saw poetry when I watched him
Haul bread from those ovens, and then
I was lost in a brickwork hate,
My language salvaged from the streets
That titled toward the mills.
No son understands how the ears go bad.
Already I cannot hear mine
When he stalks across the room,
Dark, brush-stroked question.
So I concentrate each day
On not hitting him
With another simile,
“You’re like a . . .” stuck
In my throat while I wrap myself
In the smoke-smell of paper logs
Because I warm the house with trash.
It is always after the rain we walk,
Choosing a strange route until
We have to go miles for change,
So in his poem we may be walking,
The last minutes before turning back,
And he will use a rocket image,
The nosing over into gravity
Like code-chattering pilots.
And he will recall something
Like the rainbow grease spots
Or oil slicks, the sidewalk sad
With them as some of the windows
We pass (nothing we notice), open.
I will shrink through his stanzas.
I will shrivel into a raisin
In his memory or hang on, figurehead,
On a porch in Florida, robbing
His middle age, and he will shame
Himself to approach the truth
From what he guesses is the front.

Published first in Poetry Northwest, then in the chapbook Handing the Self Back (Green Tower Press), and then in Blood Ties (Time Being Books)

Gary Fincke’s fourteenth collection, The Infinity Room, won the Wheelbarrow Books Prize for Established Poets (Michigan State, 2019). His selected poems, Bringing Back the Bones, was published by Stephen F. Austin in 2016. Earlier collections are from Arkansas, Ohio State, BkMk, Lynx House, Zoland, Jacar, and others.