This is not a new poem but one rewritten several times over the last decade. Do I now regard it as finished? I hardly dare say. Some might argue that no poem is ever properly finished because there’s always some small thing, a word or phrase, to add, to change or take away.
Around my father’s neck,
against his tweedy waistcoat,
a battered leather box was strung
on straps above his broad watch-chain,
its perforated, bruised, brown face
marked it as cousin to the gas-mask, ghastly grim,
that hung in a cobwebbed cupboard
beneath the stairs.
I had to stand tiptoe, speak to it slowly,
my childish words, enunciated carefully,
humming through cable
that climbed, bindweed thin, to my father’s distant ear.
All innocence, I thought the words went in
and there remained,
living and breathing like mice inside that perforated box.
Oak-tall he seemed, my father,
oak-solid in his deafness
and, as I grew up, sapling-straight, to match his height.
a silence swirled around us like a fog.
Each year he pencil-marked
our new height on the kitchen wall,
while hearing-aids developed too:
no more the leather box
resting, marsupial, on his faded cardigan:
now they hid like weevils
in spectacles with arms as thick as Parker pens.
Discreet, the maker claimed.
A handicap, invisible, remains a handicap
and no advance in science, so it seemed,
could dissipate the tortuous confusion
when two or more young voices vied
for his attention.
Protestant, Old Testament-severe,
he was no soapbox orator
yet often spoke at length
but seldom seemed to hear,
the eldest son, rebellious, estranged,
loved him, feared him,
but could not speak my heart to him.
Time, as it turns, obliterates
the pencil-marks of memory.
Moss gathers on my father’s grave
and yellowed album-photos fade.
I feel regret’s acidic burn
and yearn for that old perforated box,
to stand tiptoe and gently speak
the loving words I should have said,
the words of love he might have heard.
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