Tonight I have been reading poems and thinking about my dad who didn't, as far as I know, read very much poetry. Still, sometimes a poem reminds me of him by the act of capturing some facet of him, even though the poet (obviously) never knew him. It is one of the magics of poems, how someone can write about death, and then when I read the poem I don't think so much of dying but of how my dad liked going arrowhead hunting in southern Utah. He'd go with one of my sister's husbands, or with his brother, and once he had gathered enough, after many, many trips, he'd assemble all the arrowheads together on a rustic board, with buckskin braid and maybe feathers. When he went on these trips, I always thought it was a little strange, and maybe even questionable. Where'd he find the arrowheads? Was taking them from where ever he found them a sort of grave robbery? Or just something that some people do?
Now that it's too late, though, I wish I would have talked to him about his trips. I wish I knew where he'd go, and how he'd find them. I wish I knew which were his favorites, what were his motivations, how he thought about his finds. Did he think what I do, when I hold one of those chipped, triangular stones, of the person who shaped it, wondering how he lived or what he killed, imagining a sort of connection between my modern-day self and that long-ago person? Or something else? Was the arrowhead hunting about connection, or about discovery, or about the rugged beauty of a perfectly-shaped spear point? Or simply the wild peacefulness of being in the desert, the stone a way of carrying home sky, heat, dry bushes, sere stone?
He is not dead, but he (the dad I knew) is gone. I still love the silent, confused man who needs help sliding his feet into his shoes, who seemed baffled by the bright sun at our last visit. We sat together on a park bench, and I told him how my kids are, how my last run went, what book I was reading. He didn't answer, of course, and I wonder: what does it feel like to be him? Where did the dad I knew go to? Is he lost somewhere in the dark, a chipped stone I could find if I knew the path through his personal landscape? Or perhaps he is a million little stones, scattered in earth, and I will never, no matter how much I search, put all his pieces back together. The arrowhead trips are just one stone, just one facet of what is lost and I am again left with the same heartache, the same regret of not asking, of not telling, of thinking I had as much time as I needed, of not knowing how much I didn't know. Not guessing that, one day soon, he would be curled in the dark of his mind, needless artifacts scattered around him; that I would need to become an archaeologist, sifting through time's refuse, to know anything much at all about him.
"Every Dying Man"
is a child:
in trenches, in bed, on a throne, at a loom,
we are tiny and helpless
when black velvet bows our eyes
and the letters slide from the pages.
Earth lets nobody loose: it all
has to be given back — breath, eyes, memory.
We are children when the earth
turns with us through the night toward morning
where there are no voices, no ears, no light, no door,
only darkness and movement
in the soil and its thousands
of mouths, chins, jaws, and limbs
dividing everything so that
no names and no thoughts remain
in the one who is silent lying in the dark
on his right side, head upon knees.
Beside him, his spear, his knife
and his bracelet, and a broken pot.