Sunday, June 19, 2016

"Poetry Game," a Poem for my Father

Me and my father, Willis Barnstone, in our home,
Bloomington, IN, early 70s, photo by Richard Phlum.
On the occasion of my every birthday, my father writes me a poem. I remember when I was still a very small girl, around 4, he would read me "my companion of the hills / I take your hand," and he'd take my hand. He also transcribed my poems, as he did my daughter, Zoe's, when she was little. From the beginning he encouraged us all to sing, to be artists. On Father's Day, I offer a poem for my dad that gives a glimpse of our creative lives, when we spent our summers in Vermont. 

Poetry Game

—for Dad and Blanche

I could eat the words,
if one were “strudel.”
If it were “cheese,”
I couldn’t stop myself
recalling my friends’ birthday parties,
how the farmer takes a wife,
the choosing game, and my shame
to be the homely cheese
standing alone on a braided rug
breathing in sour smells,

not the savory thyme and oregano,
not the sweet
almond, filo, and honey
of our home, my father
leaning down to read
my page
of scrawls and doodles.
he’d ask, fountain pen poised,
“What kind of bird?”

“Chickadee,” I’d say,
            or “whippoorwill.”
Their names were their songs.
his black and white head
at home in daylight,
I could see when he sang,
his sharpened beak writing
letters that disappeared the instant
they were formed on air.

Whippoorwill I knew to be
a homely bird
who sings only in the dark,
invisibly, somewhere
in a thorny locust or fragrant pine
so beautiful, a little
mournful. But why
the mean picture:
whip poor Will?
I tried to think of another pun

less punishing. If I wrote “flowers,”
I understood to cross it out
before Dad questioned the word, unless
it were a verb or arranged,
a bunch of flowers I’d picked
in our field, dried up in a homely jar.
I’d say “tiger lilies,” seeing
their orange blooming
around the boulder where water pooled
after a storm.

I’d say “hollyhocks”
because when I crossed
our dirt road to find Blanche Bleikhart,
I passed their sunny faces
and tall stalks propped up against
her weathered clapboard home,
her drunk husband
bellowing behind the walls.
I’d say “marigolds,” “pansies,”
“poppies,” and “petunias,”

because she’d be kneeling in the dirt,
a hymn to the Green Mountains
spread above her,
a velvet veil across the temple
of sky. She looked up
and spoke with me,
murmuring to calico
kittens winding round her ankles
as she weeded and harvested.

I’d say “Jack-in-the-Pulpit,”
holy and purple, appearing
in sheltered groves, because
the bark peeled away from birches
reminded me of the lines
of dark earth on her knuckles,
and she gently placed some seed pods
in my young palm,
with instructions,
a simple homily.

Because bordering the rows of homely beans,
squash, peppers, and tomatoes,
my elderly friend raised the companion
flowers I’d later learn
keep pests away from our food—
and someday I’d grow
to be an old lady, gifted
with a green thumb
and sunflowers three times as tall
            as I stand, shaded by a straw hat.

—in Dwelling, forthcoming with the Sheep Meadow Press, October 4, 2016.