At The Walrus, Matthew Zapruder examines his relationships with poetry and with his father. Despite being two men with great facility for precise language, they were unable to use it to bridge the distance between them. In likening poems to people, Zapruder says that the most beautiful thing about the poems most important to him is that their meaning cannot fully be articulated.
I have found that the poems which have meant the most to me, to which I return again and again, retain a central unsayability, a place where the drama of truly looking for something essential that can never quite be reached is expressed. Somewhere in the poem, or at its end, knowingness stops. You can feel the intelligence in the poem truly exploring, clambering along the words and down the page, and also that intelligence stopping at what cannot be known. Those moments where a limit is reached can often be the greatest, and most honest, in poetry. They can come first as a surprise, then immediately afterward feel inevitable, at least for a little while.
This is why asking for a certain kind of knowledge—that way of knowing we automatically, and justifiably, expect from other texts, anything other than a poem—limits our experience with poetry. If we imagine a poem as something to be answered or solved, we will most likely find ways to do so. But I think we would be better off to think of “understanding” in a poem as an ongoing process of attention.
Simone Weil writes that attention is the purest form of generosity. A generous, open, genuinely focused attention moves us through the poem, just as it moves us through an experience, through a friendship, through anything else that means and keeps on meaning. If a poem is really good, you can’t really say what it’s “about,” that is, what its central “message” is, any more than you can do so for a painting or a piece of music or a person or a mountain.
A poem is like a person. The more you know someone, the more you realize there is always something more to know and understand. A final understanding could probably only begin upon permanent separation, or death. This is why we come back to certain poems, as we do to places or people, to experience and re-experience, to see ourselves for who we truly are, and to continue to be changed.
Billy Ray Cyrus and Miley Cyrus in 1994. (Ron Galella, Ltd / WireImage)
Dear old Dad. To hear retailers tell the story, he’s a transparent creature, someone who is pleased by the simple things: a shirt, a book, a steak, a new gadget. But the dads most of us grew up with — and without — are a more inscrutable lot. They’re people, after all, whose past lives, present concerns, and future legacies can vex, perplex, and frustrate their children. Can we ever really know these men? Some of the best writing about dads embraces that mystery, confronting the hard questions of what it truly means to know one’s father.
“I’m telling you, listen to the album again.” I jam my finger into the bar top for emphasis.
“I don’t need to. It’s called Born in the USA. It’s about good, honest American people. You’re defiling a New Jersey hero.”
“It is about America. But the flag and blue jeans on the cover, the upbeat sound on the title track—it’s all ironic.”
“Here we go. It’s ironic.”
“It’s the definition of irony. Apparent surface meaning conveying the opposite of the actual underlying intent of the message. The album is about how people can’t catch a break, how hollow all the patriotic fanfare is.” My speech sounds less pompous in my head.
“This is just like your thing with Forrest Gump.”
I roll my eyes. Forrest Gump has become his latest culture war litmus test.Still, it’s good to see my brother. I’ve been teaching in Qatar for two years and he works odd hours as a cop at the Monmouth County Prison and so the nights when we can shoot the shit are rare. When we do, we eat a lot and drink a lot and tell a lot of stupid jokes and get a sick enjoyment out of fighting with each other. Read more…
My father’s fifteen minutes came and went the night he won an arm wrestling match with Muhammad Ali. (Ali was Cassius Clay at the time, but Ali is the household name, and if I am to get any use out of my father it is the brief awe I inspire from his proximity to greatness.) The match went down in the middle of the night at a truck stop in Connecticut, 1965. My not-yet-father, Joe, would have been 33, a Korean War vet cum small-time boxer who had once made his way to Madison Square Garden. At 6’4” and 255 pounds, he loomed over the average man, and was known around those parts as the undefeated arm wrestling champion — or “wrist-wrestling,” as it was then commonly known. This title and the ways it once mattered are now, like my father, extinct.
Clay and his entourage were cruising the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound sometime between his two infamous matches with Sonny Liston. Somewhere along I-95 their bus allegedly broke down and they holed up at Secondi Bros Truck Stop, an infamous 24-hour greasy spoon in my father’s hometown. Joe sometimes worked for the Secondis, so whichever goombah was lucky enough to be hustling diner coffee that night didn’t hesitate to call him down there to challenge the champ.
This is how my father came to wrist-wrestle one of history’s greatest athletes. The details of the event have been extinguished with time, perhaps because I only ever half-listened but more likely because my father harped on what he thought mattered: that he’d won. “I think Clay was a little embarrassed, getting beat so easy,” he’d say at the end of a story he told me every time we saw each other. I’d raise my eyebrows in feigned amazement, and he’d smile at me with the patronizing greediness of someone who knows a secret about you that you don’t yet know.
Three months ago, Patrick Hardison’s face belonged to someone else—a young Brooklyn bike mechanic named David Rodebaugh. Writing for New York magazine, Steve Fishman tells the story of the most extensive face transplant yet performed, including the entire scalp, ears, and eyelids, and the two men involved (Rodebaugh was killed in a bike accident and Hardison lost most of his face in a fire 14 years ago). The entire piece is deeply compelling and raises interesting questions, like how a man’s children can adjust to a father emerging from surgery with a new face:
The next step in Hardison’s recovery was to reintroduce himself to his five kids, his mother, sister, brother, and Chrissi. It was the kids he worried about most. Nine weeks after the operation, on October 8, they walked tentatively into his hospital room. Hardison bounded toward them with a surprisingly quick step. His face was slowly healing, but the rest of him was fit, almost athletic. Hardison hugged each one fiercely, grabbed tissues to wipe the tears that seeped out from under his new eyelids.
The youngest especially, the 10- and 11-year-old boys, put on brave faces. “No matter how big of a medical miracle it may be, that doesn’t make it comfortable for his kids,” said Chrissi. “It’s still having to adjust to someone else’s face on his body.” After all, a face is more than a face. It’s an identity, a signal to the world of who a person is. By four months of age, infants’ brains recognize faces at nearly an adult level—especially the faces that belong to their parents. The younger boys touched his hair, now a half-inch long. One of the boys joked that he’d buy his dad earrings for his pierced ears. “Hell, no,” said Hardison. It was reassuring to hear his response, so typical of their dad. Still, they wanted to recognize him, to know him. “When I see his face, I want to memorize it, so the next time I see him, I know it’s my dad,” said one son.
This essay, recommended by Longreads contributor Maud Newton, is by the writer Elizabeth Bachner and appears in the current issue of Hip Mama magazine. The first issue of Hip Mama was published in December, 1993, by the founding editor, Ariel Gore, as a multicultural forum for radical mothers. Our thanks to Elizabeth Bachner and Hip Mama Magazine for allowing us to reprint this essay here.Read more…
The following is an excerpt from Nina MacLaughlin’s memoir Hammer Head—the story of MacLaughlin’s journey out of a drag-and-click job at a newspaper and into a carpentry apprenticeship. In this section MacLaughlin strikes out on her own to craft bookshelves for her father and meditates on the relationship between writing and carpentry, and learning to build with wood instead of words.
The maple leaves dropped, the temperature fell, and we slipped into winter. After the skylight, in the slowing of the year, Mary planned to pause the progress on her third-floor office space in favor of redoing a bathroom downstairs, the one with the paintbrushes in the tub and the crumbling walls.
I swung by her place to pick up the last check she owed me before we took our annual break. She walked me through her bathroom plan.
“Give me a call if you want some help,” I said.
“We’ll see if I can afford you. I’m scared shitless about how much the plumbing is going to cost.”
After his wife died in a car accident in 1973, bisexual writer and activist Steve Abbott moved with his two-year-old daughter Alysia to San Francisco, a city bustling with gay men in search of liberation. Fairyland, a Memoir of My Father is that daughter’s story—a paean to the poet father who raised her as a single, openly gay man, and a vivid memoir of a singular and at times otherworldly girlhood. As noted in The New Yorker, the memoir, which vividly recalls San Francisco in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, “doubles as a portrait of a city and a community at a crucial point in history.” Our thanks to Abbott for allowing us to reprint this excerpt here.
I called him Eddie Body. At four years old, language was my playground. “Eddie Body’s not anybody! Eddie Body’s not anybody!” I’d repeat, relishing the near symmetry of the sounds. Eddie Body was Dad’s new boyfriend, his first serious relationship after our move to San Francisco in 1974. There’d been different men—good-looking men, funny-looking men, almost always tall and skinny and young—that I found in Dad’s bed in the mornings. But it was different with Ed. He was the only one with whom I became close. He is the only one I can remember. We spent six months living with Eddie Body. I loved him.
A twenty-two-year-old kid from upstate New York, Eddie Body had moved to San Francisco to get away from his pregnant wife, Mary Ann. He’d made a pass at my dad one afternoon over a game of chess in the Panhandle Park. Soon after, Ed moved into our apartment, a four-bedroom Victorian located a few blocks from Haight Street.
Haight-Ashbury’s “Summer of Love” had ended in 1968 with the arrival of heroin and petty crime. For years the neighborhood was dominated by bars, liquor stores, and boarded-up storefronts. But rent was cheap and soon my father, along with scores of other like-minded searchers, moved in, setting up haphazard households in the dilapidated Victorian flats that lined Oak and Page streets. Many of these new residents, if not hippies themselves, shared an ethos of experimentation and free expression. Many also happened to be gay. Read more…
Recently, Roy Wenzl profiled a woman named Kerri Rawson for The Wichita Eagle. Rawson’s life was upended a decade ago, when an FBI agent knocked on her door and informed her that the man she’d always known as a loving father was in fact the BTK serial killer. Wenzl’s piece is a compelling and meticulous portrait of a woman slowly coming to terms with the impossible. Below is an excerpt:
When friends questioned whether it was wise for them to have children, Kerri ignored them. She never worried about her kids inheriting a serial killer gene.
When Emilie, at 5, understood what “grandfather” meant, she asked where her grandfather was.
“In a long time-out,” Kerri replied.
Couldn’t Kerri go see him? Emilie asked.
“It’s a really long time-out,” Kerri replied.
Kerri asked friends: “Don’t tag our children” on Facebook. When friends asked why, she didn’t know how to answer them. She told some of them that “my dad did something terrible.”
In Bloomberg Businessweek, Claire Suddath reports that there are only two countries in the world that don’t have some type of legally protected, partially paid leave for working women who just had a baby: Papua New Guinea and the U.S. The result is another big gap between the haves and have-nots:
The policies vary widely across industries and pay grades. A BLS survey of “business, management, and finance” workers—basically, those in white-collar jobs—found that 26 percent of them get paid leave. At many Silicon Valley companies, which compete for talent, new parents have it made. Facebook offers a little more than four months to everyone. Google offers five for mothers and three for fathers or new adoptive parents. The company developed its policy a few years ago when it noticed that many new mothers were quitting their jobs. After it added two more months and offering full pay, the number of new mothers who left the company dropped by half.
Some older companies also have generous policies. Goldman Sachs offers four paid months, and General Electric offers two months to moms and two weeks to dads or other parents. Waitresses and sales clerks are often out of luck; only 6 percent of service workers get anything at all. That means the ability to adjust to parenthood, learn to breast-feed, and manage a newborn becomes a luxury only certain people can afford. “We have these policies set up from the Mad Men era when dads worked and moms stayed at home. But that doesn’t reflect the American workforce anymore,” says Gillibrand, who as partner at the Manhattan law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner wrote the firm’s maternity leave policy in 2002.