Beset by Dementia, My Father Travels Through Time
I don’t know.
It’s not a loosening, no slack
in the mechanics. It’s constriction, or what,
a tightening against a gauzy fog. It’s 1952
in the Nevada desert. The mushroom cloud
plumes and the photographer snaps my picture
in uniform standing to one grim side.
But do you remember the house on Bradley Street
and Grandmother’s small Italian prayers?
I’d like to go back to the beach house before
we sell it in ’73. The storms that spring brought
sand dollar gems and sea glass. All the best
colors. The blues are the best. Some of my best
friends were dogs. One died alone on the backroad,
but can I see her, please? I want to see her, just want
to pet her. And where is the car now, and what
have you done with the car since the divorce?
Two wives and all the children. And you are one
of them, Michael. Were you there before you were
born? Did you see me save my patients
from cancer? I brought you into the mountain
to see the tourmaline mine. Have we already been?
We’re eating sandwiches in tree shade
after you hurt your foot, and you found
that perfect crystal. What a find.
That’s the kind of blue I like. Like glass, that blue.
And your foot must be fine since you made it
to your graduation, your wedding, your life
and your house and your children and baseball.
I see paper moving across out in front
and it’s so heavy I can’t lift it away.
And I cry now. So many more tears
next year when I retired. It was 1998 and 2006.
But you’re still with me. You still came. And you
always know what to say and I can’t. And you
always find the best colors,
and I’m so happy.
Poor James Wright
Stuck in that old nuthouse
worrying about the Ohio River:
there’s no way he’ll ever go back.
Fingers stained with nicotine,
he paces before the window
counting steps in meter
and searching for couplets
in the dry flies on the sill.
He doesn’t stop thinking
about the review of his last book:
Too many moons, too many horses.
What else is there?
He fears the mill, the glass
factory, the waters of the Ohio
black and reaching.
How will he get himself out
of this one?
Two months from now
he’ll be back in Minnesota
with nothing left to do
but reach out and shake
hands with the wind.
there’s a pencil in the room.
The muse is howling
and the moon swells overhead.
He takes the night into his palm,
leads horses in and out
of ghostly fields, tosses words
into a widened sky.
Squats in hot sun over leveled sand, hands
rusted and poised to place them between
the taut plumb lines
like the thin mouth open only for a wince.
Watches the spacing.
Watches the width.
Watches the walk and flattened pitch.
Watches the last ones down, straightens
to the sun and day’s order fading.
Returns home to wash and eat, gets into
a bed and dreams of spreading out,
opening up, softening wilted fists
in a wide sea of dusty red.
Listening to a Friend’s Description of Pittsburgh
His arm swoops up
to show the roll of the hills.
The mills.The coal smoke
and steel. They cut
tunnels through and built
the bridges. The rivers
go underneath, always
hoarse and roaring.
His eyes are still
in that city.
You might want to say
people there are worried
You might want to say
they are rusted metal.
You might want to think
about how each time
into one hillside
What I Should Have Done When I Found the Rabbit Dead
Before his body left for bone. Before
I knelt to set a stone in tepid
late winter thaw. Before I chopped
the dark low hole and read Frost
as my son closed his eyes and sobbed.
Before the shoebox and the kitchen towel.
Before I lifted him gently, so soft,
from his hutch. Before
I came inside to tell them all
our pet had died. I should have
left alone the shoot of hay I found
half chewed in his warm mouth.
That slender beam of simple green:
one final taste of earthly sweet.
The Woman We Stayed With in Essex Junction
Her books were dusty and her little dog
so timid I dared not offer it my
hand. Otherwise, she lived alone and, I
imagine, turned off the lights early and
slept carefully like a stone. We stayed in
the upstairs room, warmly lit, where she’d hung
quilted squares and doilies in heavy frames.
It smelled of bright lavender and we were
comfortable as we slipped into bed and
speculated about her empty house.
I’m ashamed now at how we later smiled
at the memory of her. How she just
wanted to talk, kept us in the doorway
and asked old questions again and again.
I’m ashamed we thought ourselves immune to
longing, to long black nights of waiting for
something to arrive at the door and fill
our emptiness like a lamp burning in
a far corner of an occupied room.
My father is ninety-two and has dementia. He lives in an assisted living facility not far from me, and I visit every few days. He still knows me, a gift, though often his sense of place and time is unmoored.
He was fifty-two when I was born. Growing up, he was hard to understand. He wasn’t like my friends’ dads, didn’t run around and play. Fiercely independent, he was serious by nature and had long since given up the silliness of children. In my adolescence, he was already old to me.
A practical man, a physician, I remember a conversation we had while I was in college shortly after I’d declared myself a Lit major. He didn’t understand the point of literature, he said. After all, none of it was true.
In my twenties and thirties we grew close. I got married, had my own children, and began to understand him better, as often happens when children become parents. During one visit home I happened upon a collection of poems on a bookshelf in his living room. It seemed he’d understood something, too.
These days when I visit we spend most of our time sitting together while he tries to converse. It’s difficult for him. Aphasia has taken most of his vocabulary. I watch and wait. His face tightens and he closes his eyes as if to listen for the words he knows are there but just can’t find. It’s tempting for me to fill the gaps, but I know he’d rather do it on his own.
We’ve reached a similar situation. He at the end of his life, me in the middle of mine. We’re engaged in the same struggle. Looking for ways to express our experience, make the world intelligible, describe beauty. Trying hard to find the words.
Last year my first book of poems was published. My dad is in many of them. I’m proud of the accomplishment but haven’t yet told him. I’m not sure he’ll understand or remember, and more than that, I’m not convinced I need to tell him. Somehow, I think he already knows.
Mike Bove’s first book of poems, Big Little City, was published by Moon Pie Press in 2018. He lives in Portland, Maine and is a faculty member in the English Department at Southern Maine Community College. He also plays guitar in a local cover band made up of college professors, The ProfTones.