I’ve had two poems “published.” Not by being included in real poetry magazines, but published in the sense that one was the main feature of an article on summer vacations in the Chicago Tribune’s Tempo section, and one was part of a collection comprised of poems by actual poets, which I stumbled into somewhat by accident.
Both poems are about my father and both were written from a prompt. The first was composed as part of a poetry class exercise. We were asked to take a line from one of the poems we were studying and use that line to start our poem. Then we were supposed to remove it, so what remained were only our words. I followed the directions perfectly except for the part about removing the borrowed line, which was, “I think about my father.” It was too good to take out. Here’s the poem:
I think about my father. It is 1960. I am 9 and we are on the vacation we have talked about my whole life.
We have a mint-green Chevy wagon pulling a canvas tent trailer. No radio, no seat belts, no AC. We add an air-cooler in Albuquerque. They say we'll need it for the run across the desert. Six of us in that wagon. Mom and my three sisters and Me and Dad . . . The Driver. I always sit up front because I am The Boy.
From Canandaigua to Chicago, then south. Missouri . . . Kansas . . . Oklahoma. . . We miss the twisters at Roman Nose, but catch the rain in the Panhandle.
On to Gallup where Mom and Dad fight. Up to Angel Lake in the Rockies. The car overheats. The road is narrow and winding. I am scared.
We drive through Vegas at midnight. So many lights. We don't stop. I sleep through the Desert. I wake up at the Flamingo Motel in Pasadena.
Disneyland is cool. Knott's Berry Farm is boring. I like playing shuffleboard at the motel pool.
My Uncle takes us to the Beach. The ocean's too cold. It knocks me down. I can't get out. I like the motel pool. Then we turn around. Wall Drug, the Corn Palace, Mount Rushmore (where I get lost). Back through Chicago and all the way home. Four weeks to California and back. Seven thousand five hundred and forty-nine miles. Dad drives Mom keeps track. We come home and I grow up. Dad goes to every lousy basketball game (home and away) Even when we lose 18 in a row. Last summer my father turned 85. I ask him to give up driving his car. My sisters choose me because I was The Boy. He says he can drive better than most of those Yahoos on the road today. I agree. But . . . I can't say what I need to say. That he's in the final chapter of a great life. Why risk it all? What if you fall asleep or pass out or just lose control? What if you kill someone?
I took that class in the spring of 2004, six months after I had started on my quest to become a writer. Ten years later I was invited by my friend, Anja Koenig, who is a poet / scientist/venture capitalist, to participate in a writing project where each poet is given a title for their poem from an old journal. With some editing help from Anja, I ended up with a poem that was included in a collection of poems by Anja and many other real-life poets. It was quite an honor. I was lucky to be given the perfect title for what I was feeling at the time.
THE ROADS ARE INDIFFERENT
I drove my father to the VA
for a swallow test. He failed.
He used to be stronger than me.
Taller, better all around.
I took a towel and wiped
his face. His big farmboy hands,
knobby and translucent,
shook as he clung to his walker
for the long march down
the fluorescent-lighted gauntlet
to the parking lot.
At the funeral
said I looked just like him.