Elegy For My Father


You were a true fisherman: you would fish
regardless of the catch. We sat for hours
flat-bottomed in boats, on estuaries, under car-drumming bridges
considering these fish. You used no special hooks,
or knots, to tempt them to the bait,
though I recall your nimble tying of the line
and, sure enough, untangling mine when
it sprang from me like some alien mathematics.

Your tricks were barley sugar and lots of silence.
The same touch sizzled on your fingers
when you divined for water, the dowser’s
green twig pinched into a V, held out
palms uppermost in front of you — pacing
back and forth in grid-form on the paddock,
fisher of water-streams, these long fish
flashing past us underground, and you
waiting for the downpull on the twig
and getting it each time. You had the ease,
the touch. And from this you dug
through clay, and water came.
Now it upwells in us.
And now if you tried the green twig
would your hands hold water?

Dementia took you from us, word by word
but freed you, briefly, to laugh and speak:
You were in Palestine, convalescing.
You drank the colours in transfusion.
You said the conjurors were so good
even sitting behind, above them, you
couldn’t see the tricks inside their hands.

Or memories of war, of Syria, men now dead
walking through the sunlight like an extra line of heartbeats
you’ve kept inside your chest. I’d like to say
there’s light, dawnlight, and through it
you’ll come striding home across the swamp
your boots smelling of pennyroyal, grinning
another day’s work done, done well.
But I can’t.

You lie in bed, speaking the sad late poems
illness makes of language. I churn with anguish
and analysis, and try to keep you talking
as if somehow any sense will save us
but the words you lay uppermost upon your palms
pull towards the current less and less.
Every visit it gets worse.
Now your staring won’t translate,
and the silence outspeaks love.
Now the ceiling fan spins the air
down onto you, your hands are frozen.
You sit in frames that never move
unless on wheels, pushed behind.
And we must read this, knowing
there are no tricks, no answers if
a good man ends his life in ruin,
holding a fluffy rabbit so his fingers
won’t rip the buttons from his shirt.
You sleep curled in striped pyjamas,
in this room like Edward Hopper’s
less the light, less the art, or wake
for the regulation visit to the toilet,
your pants already wet…

Since it began she has attended you as always —
my mother and your ever sweetheart —
sitting every day beside you. This is Communion
as Holy as it gets. This is the act of love
the scriptures speak of but only sometimes get.
Do you know she’s sitting there each day,
angel of worry, a vision of the wife
inside you? What hurts you so you cry?
Your every action’s like a koan.
Every day you sit there raving, waiting;
she hears the cattle truck back into Monday,
the launch moored at the end of the bed.
At first we thought that Alzheimer
had come to visit you and talk of things
only these could know. But there’s no
name as neat or as nasty in effect
we can claim. You’re left open … nothing…
She must choose how often, when,
to fit your glasses, hearing aids, or leave
them folded neatly in their boxes, so you
are weighed down or released.
She smells
the Pinoclean, hears the lunatic canary
at the end of the verandah, and underneath
the cage the bull-voiced woman swearing.
All she can do is lift the fork and spoon
balance food for your one remaining talent.
Mind gone, immobile, deaf, and blind,
the self is just an article of faith.

As she leans over you and by kisses
tells you that she’s there, as the lines leave your face
and enter her, as the memories leave you and enter her
as she fills with pity’s awful retribution:
if you cry once, she cries ten times over.

When she said you had stopped eating we drove down.
We heard ourselves saying: If you want to go, go.
But you ate a bowlfull of jelly and cream as if
to forget, briefly, the serious business of dying.
Your sweetish tooth still there, your mischief.
To swallow down a few more days, emptying.

My right shoulder has been heavy all night.
I dream I’ve slept in a hull dragged onto a bank.

The river gleams like the river gleamed on the farm
but never again that river, never again that child.

But my father is still my father, even if I see him
naked, pink, his lower face formed into a beak

and he is huddled on the packed earth, shuddering
off the seasons in fast and wild cries, shaman, bird-man

and dying, dementia his last unworldly trance.
I hold him in my arms so he won’t fall back

awkwardly into the dirt. But he is pink and strange
and cries because I have never held him in my life.

His beak is broken, showing teeth, and I cry, hold him
as the sky floods the shelter, as the words go cold,

bird in the bird-man’s hut, the sun and the river lifting
both of us from grief. Somewhere the rowlocks creaking.

Something out there on the water.  When I
turn again onto my hull, his body in the boat

is like the memory of a catch, or a swan,
like a flash of light in the heart, dimming.

After a visit we take our lunch down to the beach.
Everything seems less or too significant:
There is glass on the road from an accident —
the mind like this old-style shattered windscreen,
the pattern glorious but the light
trapped everywhere like thousands of dice.
We see a young woman with a ferret on a leash
like a foot of brown and lively water
lapping at the steps, and see a boy fly a radio-
operated glider in the air above our heads
as the sun holds and the sea-wind holds.
If you want to go, go.

I think of Tommy Talbot and you pointing up
as his Tiger Moth flew low above the farm
the sunlight balanced in the hands.
And now, out of such hands, you are going,
or are received, there out of that touch, the water,
the conjuror at life’s end.

If the only contract is to live, then
somewhere behind it, its opposite.
Cataracts removed, your eyes are full of pupil:
something has got in, or waits there as if
death has its small place, its shock, fear:
all you never were is glittering and black there.
You are so small now, the skin of your face
is bean-smooth and without your teeth, I see,
briefly, the jaw is like small limbs tucked up,
your head like a softly curled foetus
and I curse myself, wanting not to be
thinking this.
Now your lips move more than
your eyes: clenching as you swallow down
a few more hours. My own breath labours
hearing yours working at the edges, stopping
for a minute, two, then gasping inwards
aching lungfuls.
Something changes
more than I expect, I feel
strength only in the people, and
all the objects in the room
look awful. A single blossom
floats across a saucer, slowly
to the other side … except, by chance,
not symbolism. In here with you
dying, instead, we are simply waiting.
We tell stories, we drink our port, and laugh
and know we will soon be crying.

And while we want you here, with us,
there are mortal things and things of never
turning back. Your breathing’s intermittent,
then slow. We love you. Go safely, now. Go.

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