Dad owned an Eskimo mask
carved of brown whale balleen porous as lava
whose Mongol lips curved in a knowing smile
above the fireplace-- immune, I thought,
to the Russian novel we lived.
Icon or eyesore, it marked his territory.
After redecoration its pitted face was hidden
between prints of red-hued harlequins
meant to marry the lemony walls
of the newly cheerful family room
to the crimson shag below. The living room,
with its wall-length mirrors of smoked glass
marbled with gold, crushed velvet sofa
and uncomfortably small floral chairs,
was only good for cocktails.
In their last home the mask was mounted
under Plexiglas next to the wet bar
facing Mom's candle snuffer collection.
We didn't know Dad was running out of territory
until the whiskey quit working
and he sealed himself in his car
and I got to compare fixed smiles.
(published in The Miserere Review)
This is the third of poems about my dad, which are grouped together in the depression section of Sine Wave. The careful reader may have noticed that the speaker has now risen from the complete self-involvement of severe depression and is able to think about the misery of others, objectifying his concerns.
This poem is based on a central metaphor. Early in his career my father worked for Shell Oil and made frequent trips to Alaska to negotiate oil leases. He brought various mementos back form his trips; one of our favorites was a worm made of fur that when stroked would crawl up an arm. The Eskimo mask survived decorators and all the changes mother wrought as we rose socially to better houses and neighborhoods. It speaks for itself, as a manic-depressive's defenses are very porous, though also stubborn. Its final resting place, caged in Plexiglass across from my mother's collection of candlesnuffers, symbolized to me his ultimate defeat by domestication, thus women. He was a misogynist among other things, but the cause of this defect was three enormous older sisters who bossed him around when he was the baby of the family. His distant father was over fifty when he was born, his only brother thirteen years older and unavailable to save him from the female domination of his formative experience. I don't excuse his misogyny for these reasons, I only seek to understand it.
Dad purchased other art for the walls, most of it bad except for those prints in which he was guided by my older brother. Nevertheless the mask held a power for us all, I think, as a symbol of continuity and my dad's refusal to give in entirely to my mom's re-decorating schemes, as a male totem.
'CO' in the previous poem of course stands both for carbon monoxide, the method of his death, and "commanding officer."
This is the last poem about my father in the book.
BTW, I want to thank everyone who writes me by e-mail with their comments (and compliments!) on the poems. Because they comment directly by e-mail you won't read their posts here.
My father wasn't a bad man. He, like most of us, was just sadly deficient in self-knowledge. Had he know himself better he would have been better.