The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Daryl Jones

Elegy for My Family

 

First the pink rays, then a window far away

catching fire as light ascends the ridge….

One radiant moment follows another,

light walking across the emerging landscape,

gilding the trees, the roofs, the sleeping houses

with their porch lights left burning, earth spinning us

into another day, then the night that follows.

 

Which is, after all, the dark side to the story:

the past, like a frugal father, always

walking behind us, turning out the lights.

 

            *          *          *          *

 

Beginnings and endings, and memory

looping back to look for what’s been lost.

 

Once, when I was eight, my father brought home

a glider made of wire and bright blue silk.

While he smoked his pipe, I ran into the wind,

holding the little plane in the air beside me,

reluctant to let it go.  Let go, he called,

let go, let it fly.  And so it did,

a big gust lifting it out over the trees

and off, vanishing into the blue distance

of childhood, forgotten, and only now

circling back and landing in my thoughts.

 

            *          *          *          *

 

Letting go is the hard part:  my father

resting his hand on the bar of the steel casket

where his mother, widowed at forty, lay

inside the silence under her crossed arms.

The pastor’s eulogy, a rage in Welsh

against the dying light in the echoing church,             

was lost on me.  It should have been a hymn

woven from the warp and weft of her long days

at the lace mill, the huge looms clattering

through the tedium, and only the whistle at six

to look forward to, then the cold walk in the dark

up Brewery Hill, the stiff climb up the stairs

to the empty table waiting to be spread.

 

On visits, I would play on the kitchen floor,

rocking with my hand the whirring iron treadle

of her old Singer, the sweet doughy aroma

of Welsh cakes on the griddle, the bara brith

rising under a dish cloth on the stove.

 

            *          *          *          *

 

In the photograph, my mother’s dressed in a kilt,

a plaid slung over her shoulder, one hand

raised, as if she might, in the next moment,

break into a fling.  She’s probably thirteen,

and already she’s wearing the eager, bright

expression that would light her way through the dark

tunnels of my father’s silences.  She danced

in front of our TV with Ruby Keeler,

with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and wept

shamelessly, to be so blessed, amid

the mahogany and gilt of our living room,

its walls the lavender-pink of Scotch thistle,

its garish elegance and backyard flowers.         

Even then, the cell that would take her

was sleeping deep inside, waiting to bloom.

But in the photograph it’s still the Depression,

a moment stopped in time, and she gazes

eagerly at me in a line from then to now,

one hand raised, as if to be called upon.

 

             *          *          *          *

 

We count our blessings, count the minutes,

count off the endless days we have to work

until the long weekend we’re counting on.

They all add up in the end:  my father, slumped

on the toilet, ashen, death’s merciless joke,

the sum total of all his silences

and his father’s before him, the white scar

of absence that he carried all his life

and passed down like a family trait to me,

his only child, childless, where the bloodline dead-ends.

 

            *          *          *          *

 

What is a scar if not a memory,

a nick in time?  What we carry through the years

are charms against forgetting—a blue glider,

the smell of Welsh cakes baking, a hand raised

in greeting or goodbye—bright moments

 

to hold as the day lets go, darkness settling

its accounts like a doomed man walking into shadows,

the porch lights coming on, time healing

all wounds, all the moments dying behind us.

 

 

 

DARYL JONES's poems have appeared in The Idaho Review, The Sewanee Review, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. His book Someone Going Home Late (Texas Tech Univ. Press) won the Natalie Ornish Poetry Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. Recently, his poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Gettysburg Review, New Ohio Review, Poet Lore, The Southern Review, Southern Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He is a former Idaho Writer-in-Residence and recipient of an NEA Fellowship. 

 

 

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