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I Wonder If He Felt Me Write Him Dead

I killed my father. And it felt right. If you read my forthcoming poetry collection Gonesongs (Bellowing Ark Press, 2011), you might think my father is dead. More than one of the poems implies it, after detailing his harsh personality. In another collection, The Kentucky Vein (Punkin House Press, 2011), I declare him dead outright in the poem “Standing at Daddy’s Grave.”

My father is, as far as I know, very much alive. Any misunderstanding by my readers of that is not an error of understanding on their part, or due to any confusing poetry gimmicks. No, it was deliberate. I lied.

Does that matter? Poetry, unlike creative nonfiction, rarely purports to be fact, though we poets are ever thieves. We are squirrels, stealing interesting tidbits and shiny pieces of stories and lives not our own, hoarders of images and words, threading them into our work wherever it fits our inspiration best. The “I” of poetry, we argue, is a general one, not a poet-personal pronoun.

My father is removed from my life by choice – his – and at the root of that choice lies a blazing, destructive addiction to anger, alcohol and drugs. I am very much like my father in many ways. My temper can be whipped to froth in moments, I find the concepts of retribution and vengeance attractive. If it were a viable career alternative, I might have been a vigilante. Like my father, I am passionate about any number of things, my affections can be fickle, and I am enamored of instant gratification. I am subject to random whims to be incredibly kind almost as often as I am to be cruel. There is no way for me to parse how many of our similarities are due to nature and how much to nurture. Because of this, I live in fear of becoming him, but also of forgetting him.

I did not consider the ethical implications of those poems (the patricide poems, if you will) at the time. I did not debate whether to include them (though I did question whether I wanted my mother reading them). They belonged in my narrative. They felt right; they felt good. They belonged in my story of myself. And because my work is in print, un-erasable, he is dead to those who have read my work. To people I will never meet, who will never hear or read me admit my duplicity. I don’t know why it bothers me so much. Actually, I do: I am a person who believes in the power of language, the magic of the written word, and the energy and intent we put out into the universe. In a sense, my lingering mix of guilt, X, and satisfaction all boil down to one thing:

Learning to live with my work is a lesson in humility. Sometimes shame, sometimes peace, but always humility. To all of those people who never knew my father and know my work, he is dead. They have, somewhere in their heads, closed a door upon the possibility of ever meeting or knowing him. That branch of possible, for those readers, is gone. I think about this more than I should.

My father is rarely mentioned among our family anymore, and whenever I am reminded he is still out there, I find myself surprised. In writing his loss (and death), and in holding onto these poems for so long, I have come to believe the story the way I have written it, instead of the way it was and is. Ninety percent of the time, I treat my father – and his memory – as though he is dead, as though I did speak at his grave, as though I came to terms with the death of a rough work-hardened man who was difficult to know. It allows me to sleep. It allows me to live my life without wondering if every car I pass is his, if he is looking for me, if he would talk to me if I could find him.
And so, I struggle because the lie – and it’s a whopper – has been worth it. I don’t agonize over trying to impact his decisions. I don’t punish myself for not being the person who can make him walk away from his bad choices. It moved him from the foreground to the background of my life and emotional landscape, and I function quite well (if not entirely honestly) within this arrangement.

Do I owe my readers the truth as I know it, or the truth as I write it? I don’t know. Writing my father dead is an act of power for me, but it is also a polite curtain drawn over some ugly realities. Some things are not poetry. Cocaine-fueled rages and crimes committed by a crackhead I used to call Daddy are not poetry for me, though I may address them in prose. So far, readers who know both my life and my work well have allowed me this separation. Will new readers who don’t know me be as generous?

I buried my father alive with words and it brings me peace. It also gives me a sense of rekindling the power of language. At the worst point, he would call me late at night, in the grip of drug-fueled paranoia, anger, or regret. I pleaded, cried, raged and reasoned with him to no avail. I made myself ill with worry. I wrote down the best arguments I could think of so I could be clear-headed and be sure to give him my most effective words, and my beloved language failed me. Perhaps I failed it. In either case, the result was the same, and I did not save my father.

The man I remember as wielding a sledgehammer with ease and bending thick ropes of copper bare-handed, I killed with little more than a piece of paper and a bit of ink. It hurt me to do it, even as it freed me. I wonder if he felt me become mighty at my ability to make him small. I wonder if he felt me write him dead.

I wonder if I will feel it if he erases me.

When I saw him last, years ago, he still had a clover tattoo on his upper left arm, each leaf inscribed with the name and birthdate of my brother, sister and me. I don’t know if he he did have the ink gone over with something darker. I thought it might feel a little like death, to have your name erased by one of those who created you. In some old myths, when God erased your name from the Book of Life, all who had known you forgot you existed. You were wiped from the memory of the world.

I’ve had some of my own tattoos covered up with others. If you know it’s there, you can always see that first tattoo underneath, slightly warping whatever comes after, surfacing in lines not-quite straight, shapes that don’t quite fit. The overwrite always hurts more, the skin there more tender, a reminder of the prior claim of that first inking. If my father did erase or overwrite us, I hope it hurt like hell, the way it did for me.

– Colleen S. Harris works on the library faculty at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is the author of God in my Throat: The Lilith Poems (Bellowing Ark, 2009), These Terrible Sacraments (Bellowing Ark, 2009) and The Kentucky Vein (Punkin House, 2011).

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