Golden comet, you.
Dawn-screeched, dusting the terrain.
Your wide, wide reach of blue.
Tetherless and wander-worn,
there’s nowhere you can’t not fly.
“Your dad could sell white blackbirds.” — Uncle Chuck
Nana collected peaches from the heaviest branches in August,
made cobbler of the scabbed or lopsided harvest,
filled brown bags with the roundest, red-cheeked fruit.
They loaded his Murray bike basket. She warned him
of the swerve, the potholes, stirring the grit. He couldn’t sell
what was spilled, couldn’t reach the boughs for more.
How he must have pedaled through the sweet, the yellow weight,
the possibility of bruising so much sunshine.
You were never
seawash pink dusk, hands
shouldering the babies.
You were bright, yolky tempera, shadowed city street,
wash of red, trace of kinetic rhythm
phone line silhouette in the periphery,
scratch of indiscernible pentimento.
The night rings each dream,
and in this new wakefulness
my father wants to know where to find me.
A child-scryer, I divined the telephone
for his living patterns, found only static.
Now he watches for me, he says, at that Irish pub in Frisco,
El Faro beach, the Peppermill.
The Mill went under years ago, I say.
Lies, the voice of my ghost father laughs through the line.
You always did believe those lies.
How It’s Done
Begin with tenacity, the nested feet of an emperor penguin.
Add the steady back of a giant water bug, wide and flat as an ever-watching eye.
Craft a rib of clay scraped from your own night-tended garden,
and above his gaze – poached from a doting dachshund –
embroider the barbuled plumage of a sandgrouse, that you may never thirst.
In honor of your mother, pour an elixir of prairie vole love
slowly down a gullet slit from a white-throated sparrow
as he whistles to his chicks, peabody peabody peabody.
Fatten the belly on the milk of a male Dayak fruit bat:
Here is where you will affix the patient pouch of a seahorse.
To the torso, stitch the plush arms of an owl monkey –
that you may always be held – and if the primate
flashes his hurt lantern eyes at the loss,
explain the cruel but necessary logic, theorems scratched
and scratched again in childhood notebooks.
Finally, here’s the magic, and it’s your best trick:
The heart you thrust behind the carved breastbone
of this flawless father, must be
as tender as a wren, pulsing warmly, and plucked
from your own severed chest.
Nabby Adams Speaks at Her Funeral
“The unbidden sigh will rise”
—Abigail Adams to John Adams after the death of their daughter Nabby.
What were my breasts to me
before their betrayal?
I carried them on my body
as day-old bread taken to the poor house.
At times William pawed me, disinterested,
like the full-bellied cat that he was.
The babies brought milk, of course,
and I bound myself dry.
So slow coming was the disaster,
the way, with dusk one could never say
exactly when the sky was fully dark.
Suddenly I was unbuttoning my dress
for every man who titled himself doctor.
I was leather-bound at the table.
It was kind of the surgeon not to tell how I cried out.
Though I didn’t sleep, I feel as though I waked
with the Morning Hymn on my lips:
Visit then this soul of mine,
Pierce the gloom of sin, and grief,
Fill me, Radiancy Divine,
Scatter all my unbelief . . .
How I believed in every knife, that each burn would sear me clean.
O jailer, my body, have I not been the perfect inmate?
Have I not accepted my daily rations with gladness?
And yet you set me free too soon.
Native Americans settled for thousands of years in the Truckee Valley. Their camps were on these flats near the river. They used fish blinds near here and left petroglyphs on boulders.
– Nevada Historical Marker
What was the meaning of “settle”
to men who arrived mud-creased,
boot-broken, afoul of snow, tobacco poor?
They named that which was never nameless:
beaver, river, fish, peak.
And what they saw they took.
Such easy game, the beaver – su-i’-tu-ti-kut-teh’–
so simple to slip a hand under brook water and strangle.
They wanted the river, too, named the current
for cutthroat salmon that thrived in its pools and then
fished those salmon into memory.
Again settlers courted the water,
called it Truckee, after the Paiute chief
whose true name baffled their tongues.
Chief Tru-ki-zo guided these gold hungry men
away from the flow of his namesake
as it travels one hundred miles from Tahoe basin,
fishhooks north and east to Pyramid Lake
where the Virginia Mountains, the Pah Pah Range
and the Smoke Creek Desert
cradle each drop in their dry embrace.
Still the ancient river, as aloof as the red-tailed hawk,
slips into sky, becomes rain.
An Interview with Patricia Caspers
by poetry editorial staff Julie Brooks Barbour and Taylor Worsham
Border Crossing: The natural imagery in many of these poems becomes a lens with which to discuss larger issues, especially in “How It’s Done” where the various details of insects, birds, and mammals merge to describe the life of a father, and from which lives a father might be created. Could you talk about the genesis of this poem?
Patricia Caspers: “How It’s Done” came out of the poem-a-day challenge in April, 2017. I was sort of scratching around for poem ideas and read that the female giant water bug glues her eggs to the back of the male, and he carries the eggs until they hatch. It occurs to me now that the males may not have a choice about their parental burden, but at the time it made me think that some male animals make better fathers than human fathers. Well, I suppose humans are animals, too, but in any case I began researching the most noble animal fathers, and then I turned myself into a kind of poetic Victor Frankenstein.
It’s uncomfortable for me to put father poems in the world— which no one would guess considering how many of them I have written— because really nothing more has needed to be said about dysfunctional father-daughter relationships since Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” was published in 1965.
And yet, I can’t stop writing them. And I can’t stop reading them. So many of us nearly, or fully, destroy ourselves and those around us in search of the love our fathers were incapable of giving, and it’s important to be reminded that we’re not alone.
At least that’s what I tell myself every time I write a new poem about my dad.
These days I try to keep the destruction contained within the pages.
BC: The father appears in different ways in the poems featured here. In “Father As,” each section reflects a different aspect of the male figure, and in “Watershed,” settlers rename what already has a name and, as mentioned in the poem, “what they saw they took.” Could you discuss the use of familiar and historical fathers in these poems?
TC: Lately, I’ve been thinking about how my father had so many different lives: his child life in the country, his life as my young father, and then a different life moving around the U.S. with my younger half- and step-siblings. There’s so much of his life that was unknowable to me, and I wanted to imagine here what I don’t know for sure. He told me once that my grandmother turned him into a salesman, but in his personal life he was a kind of salesman, too, selling his whims, his risks, his lies, to the people who loved him. Even the jokes he told were a way of making a sale, really, and our laughter closed the deal. Now he has this afterlife in my dreams, and I guess I thought I’d find the closure with him there that I never found while he was living, but even in my dreams he’s an enigma.
But maybe we all have these different seasons, pieces of our past or of our interior lives that, to different degrees, are inscrutable to others.
I hadn’t really thought of “Watershed” as being another kind of father poem, but it really is, isn’t it? I live in California, about an hour from Truckee and the infamous Donner Pass. My son’s class took a field trip to the site, and we all stood in wonder at the idea that people pushed and prodded their wagons and cattle over boulders as big as cars. As much as I admire their perseverance, and as much as I love living in this beautiful place, I also can’t help but think about how much better off the land would be without us here.
There’s a vast difference between Native Americans settling themselves in the area, and the Westerners who “settled” the land. I have a hard time with the word “settle” and its paternalistic connotations. We settle babies when they’re cranky; we settle horses when they’re spooked. To settle is to offer comfort. I don’t believe the European settlers were offering the land comfort; the land never needed comfort. Certainly the Native people didn’t need to be settled, and the past tense of that historical marker makes my heart hurt.
When I learned that the Truckee river is self-contained— it doesn’t flow out to any ocean— I couldn’t help but see it as a metaphor for that idea long after humans have driven themselves to extinction the earth will still be doing its thing in one way or another.
BC: “Nabby Adams Speaks at Her Funeral” is about the daughter of John Adams, and focuses on an operation Nabby underwent after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Can you tell us more about the history behind this poem and the details that interested you?
TC: “The unbidden sigh will rise” is a line from a letter Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, and it’s what first interested me in Nabby Adams’ death. I can’t imagine the grief that Abigail Adams must have felt at losing her only living daughter to breast cancer, and it seems cruel that beyond the grief Abigail would also feel guilt because she didn’t always rejoice in the belief that her daughter was with God.
When I researched Nabby Adams, I read that at 46 (my age) she’d had a mastectomy in her parents’ home without the use of anesthesia, and she was praised for keeping silent throughout the ordeal. There’s a fairly horrific description of the surgery in Bathsheba’s Breast: Women, Cancer and History.
What an extraordinary woman! That was my first thought, but then I wondered if it was true that she was silent. Maybe it was a lie that saved her from embarrassment and also perpetuated the ugly idea that a true lady should bear pain without complaint, an idea that still persists today.
It also occurred to me that I’ve seen or read many scenes of soldiers on the battlefield guzzling whiskey and chomping on a board before having a limb amputated, but I’d never heard about what it was like for women who were undergoing similar brutal surgeries without anesthesia.
BC: Are there any writers and/or specific books that have inspired your recent work?
TC: “Nabby Adams Speaks at Her Funeral” is one of a series of 45 persona poems I’m writing. Each is in the voice of someone who’s connected— however remotely— to a US president. I was inspired to write the series after reading Angela Serratore’s article, “Grover Cleveland’s Problem Child” in Smithsonian Magazine. Serratorre details the account of Cleveland’s rape of Maria Halpin and his attempt to silence her by stealing her baby and locking Halpin away in an asylum.
I suppose the series is also, in part, inspired by the current presidency.
I love what can be done with persona poems, and the most powerful, I think, is Patricia Smith’s “Undertaker,” a gruesome and heartbreaking look at gang violence from the unique perspective of the person who has to piece the bodies back together. While it was written in the 90s, it’s still a powerful commentary on our times.
BC: What draws you to the persona poem specifically? What difficulties might arise in writing poems about historical figures, or about our nation’s history?
TC: I like to joke that I’m really a creative nonfiction writer with a short attention span.
You know they say there are two sides to every story, but it’s more like the sides are infinite. Memory always changes, and so over time even the truth changes, and then our perception of the truth changes— both for the people who experienced an event and the people who are left to sort it out when those people are gone.
I’m fascinated by the stories that haven’t been told, and I love the research. I was a journalist for a while, and I guess this project fulfills something I’m missing from that work. The struggle is finding the balance of research and imagination. For example, I’m working on a poem about Payne Todd, son of Dolley Madison— who was by all accounts a scoundrel and a drunk— and I want to know why he acted the way he did, but if there is no why, I’d like to imagine it. I have a theory.
Another challenge is that I don’t want to leave out the voices of people of color, but as a white writer I really, really don’t want to get it wrong or be offensive in any way. I’ve been reading up on all of the mistakes white writers make, and I’m writing to my best ability and asking for help even when I think I don’t need it. I’m also open to collaboration. I don’t want to wait for someone else to write these poems because there’s a chance that may never happen.
Patricia Caspers’ full-length poetry collection, In the Belly of the Albatross, is available from Glass Lyre Press. Her poetry has been published widely in journals such as Ploughshares, Sugar House Review, and Quiddity. She lives in Northern California where she is a writing instructor, columnist and maker space coach.