A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
When I drive her home one night, a friend whose house I’ve only been to once is amazed that I remember how to get there, and I admit that some part of me keeps track of landmarks, safe houses, escape routes. Sometimes we’d have to flee the house. My mother would tell me to get some clothes together, and we’d pack ourselves, with the three dogs, into her brown Chevette. Whenever I drive by a campground, I still have the urge to check in, sleep overnight in the back of the car, return to the house the next morning as if nothing had happened.
Always out of fragments. Although I learned to steer by riding in front of my father on our enormous green riding lawnmower, I learned how to shift the night my mother broke her right hand punching my father in the head to slow him down, and we had to get lost before he could recover. Our lives became ritualized by the years: anxious waiting, bitter argument, threats then violence, escape or collapse. Originally I thought I’d be a novelist because they seemed to make money, which might buy me freedom. The first poet I ever heard changed everything, or maybe I should say that everything that was fragmented in me began to throb.
After the night closed down the town, after the old sign-off pattern on the television, after the dogs settled on the beds and began to snore. After the sound of his red Ford truck’s tires on the graveled driveway slid to a stop, the door banged open, and we waited in the dark, hoping he’d just fall asleep this time. The compound sentence links two independent clauses together, but that linkage isn’t always comfortable. My mother would go downstairs first. If any good ever came from her doing that, I wasn’t there to witness it.
My father, dogged by his father’s temper and his mother’s depression. If my own mother’s confrontations ever did any good, I’d be surprised, yet I’d like to think, and maybe she did too, it might have worked. His voice, overloud, said her name, and her voice began as a hush so low I’d have to imagine it in the space after his. If I had a dime for every time I wished he’d simply die, I’d be a rich man. I sat at the top of the stairs listening, wishing.
To have been literally tied to the porch like a dog. Even though 30 years have passed, even though he’s been dead for ten years, I expect someone to burst through the front door after midnight, and I have prepared, hidden my weapons. Whenever I walk into a strange room, the first thing I look for is the exit. I can sometimes catch myself. You’d think after all these years that habit of anxiety might disappear, but you’d be wrong.
The arrowheads that went missing at the end. If I remember right, I was always a nervous kid, so not everything can be blamed on my father. Whatever source of chaos he was, eventually I have to stop blaming him exclusively for the state of my nerves. He was also the only one in my family to say it was okay to want to be a writer, and he, drunk or not, brought two Doberman puppies home that Christmas, in 1973. Those dogs gave me something to hold onto.
Copyright 2016 Jeff Oaks from The Big Father Essay published by At Length Magazine. Republished by permission of the author.