When I was growing up in rural Arkansas, I remember being taught the story of Abraham and Isaac in Sunday school. The whole story is a real soap opera—the patriarch gets the servant pregnant, then his postmenopausal wife, who demands the servant and her kid be kicked out. There’s sex, jealousy, rejection and exile (and that odd subplot about strange men dropping in on their way to the big city, where they nearly get raped before the whole city goes up in flames.) But the central drama is a story about a father and son, a trip up the mountain where Abraham is going to kill his son Isaac because God told him to. Test of faith and all that. Over and over we were taught this story as an exemplum of great faith.
But it’s really pretty creepy, pretty horrifying. Your dad loves his god so much he’s willing to kill you. The poem that opens my second book of poetry, Prodigal: Variations (Lethe Press 2011), takes that story as its impulse, but reimagines it from the point of view of someone like Isaac. (“Sacrifice” also appeared in Best New Poets 2007.)
When my father bound me, I submitted,
closed my eyes to the lifted knife in his fist.
Even now, the cords still hold my wrists,
rough ropes of love. My chest is bare,
my heart lies open. He loves his god more
than me. I open my eyes, watch my father
raise his fist against a bright and bitter
sky, no angel there to stay his hand.
In many ways, the book is a book about men—not just fathers and sons, but brothers,
friends, lovers. And for me it’s also a book about the stories I grew up with, especially stories from the Bible. In particular, the story of the prodigal son, with its promise of reconciliation, haunts the book. But if the book is haunted by what could have been, it finds its consolations in the here and now, in the rituals and relationships that sustain us.
One poem near the end is both tragic and hilarious. A friend of mine told me that his
mother, who has Alzheimer’s, has forgotten that she’d disowned him years ago for being
gay, and now the woman who rejected him is thrilled to see him.
Lily, Jack’s yellow lab, leans across the futon to look
at me, the casita’s latest visitor, new neighbor for the week,
then she sighs—the way that dogs resign themselves to something new—
thumps that thick semaphore of tail, and stretches, a back paw
against my leg as she sleeps—the way I fall asleep best,
my foot just touching Bert’s leg beneath the sheets. Meanwhile, the rest
of the world shudders on: sunlight spattering the shady lawn,
sirens pulsing on a nearby street, a cement rabbit pausing
at the back fence. If I speak of solace now, I don’t
mean comfort. At lunch today, Robert said his mother doesn’t
remember that she’d disowned him—the disease weeds the last few years
away. When he visits, she is almost loving, which she never
really was, he says. It’s not her, he says, or maybe it is.
This was a difficult book for me in some ways, grounded as it was in my alienation from
my own father and family and home. Ironically, when the book was launched in April at the Columbia Museum of Art, I was in the midst of a three-month stint at home, helping with my father’s hospice care. It was a big affair, a joint book launch with fellow poet and friend Ray McManus, and bluegrass gospel from a band called, of all things, Total Denial.
I know I retell stories obsessively. No version is the last one. Now the book is haunted by three months of something I could never have imagined, haunted by the possibility of all the book denies—-as in the title poem:
A man watches the road.
He will see me coming.
Even a great way off, he will see me coming.