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6 Poems About Fathers 

Parents are complicated. These flawed people that gave us life or provided us with a home can bring on series of emotions, ones that we can grapple with our entire lives. 

With our dads fresh in our minds after Father’s Day this month, you might have feelings of love, gratitude, and affection towards your father, or you could be struggling with sadness, anger or mourning the loss of the father figure in your life. 

Here are six poems by writers seeking to understand their fathers, mourning or remembering them through poetry. 

_____

Telemachus

Like any good son, I pull my father out

of the water, drag him by his hair

through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail

the waves rush in to erase. Because the city

beyond the shore is no longer

where we left it. Because the bombed

cathedral is now a cathedral

of trees. I kneel beside him to show how far

I might sink. Do you know who I am,

Ba? But the answer never comes. The answer

is the bullet hole in his back, brimming

with seawater. He is so still I think

he could be anyone’s father, found

the way a green bottle might appear

at a boy’s feet containing a year

he has never touched. I touch

his ears. No use. I turn him

over. To face it. The cathedral

in his sea-black eyes. The face

not mine – but one I will wear

to kiss all my lovers good-night:

the way I seal my father’s lips

with my own & begin

the faithful work of drowning.

Ocean Vuong

 

The Gift

To pull the metal splinter from my palm

my father recited a story in a low voice.

I watched his lovely face and not the blade.

Before the story ended, he’d removed

the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

 

I can’t remember the tale,

but hear his voice still, a well

of dark water, a prayer.

And I recall his hands,

two measures of tenderness

he laid against my face,

the flames of discipline

he raised above my head.

 

Had you entered that afternoon

you would have thought you saw a man

planting something in a boy’s palm,

a silver tear, a tiny flame.

Had you followed that boy

you would have arrived here,

where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

 

Look how I shave her thumbnail down

so carefully she feels no pain.

Watch as I lift the splinter out.

I was seven when my father

took my hand like this,

and I did not hold that shard

between my fingers and think,

Metal that will bury me,

christen it Little Assassin,

Ore Going Deep for My Heart.

And I did not lift up my wound and cry,

Death visited here!

I did what a child does

when he’s given something to keep.

I kissed my father. 

Li-Young Lee 

 

All My Pretty Ones 

Father, this year’s jinx rides us apart

where you followed our mother to her cold slumber;

a second shock boiling its stone to your heart,   

leaving me here to shuffle and disencumber   

you from the residence you could not afford:   

a gold key, your half of a woolen mill,

twenty suits from Dunne’s, an English Ford,   

the love and legal verbiage of another will,   

boxes of pictures of people I do not know.

I touch their cardboard faces. They must go.

But the eyes, as thick as wood in this album,   

hold me. I stop here, where a small boy

waits in a ruffled dress for someone to come …   

for this soldier who holds his bugle like a toy   

or for this velvet lady who cannot smile.   

Is this your father’s father, this commodore

in a mailman suit? My father, time meanwhile   

has made it unimportant who you are looking for.   

I’ll never know what these faces are all about.   

I lock them into their book and throw them out.

 

This is the yellow scrapbook that you began

the year I was born; as crackling now and wrinkly   

as tobacco leaves: clippings where Hoover outran   

the Democrats, wiggling his dry finger at me

and Prohibition; news where the Hindenburg went   

down and recent years where you went flush   

on war. This year, solvent but sick, you meant   

to marry that pretty widow in a one-month rush.   

But before you had that second chance, I cried   

on your fat shoulder. Three days later you died.

 

These are the snapshots of marriage, stopped in places.   

Side by side at the rail toward Nassau now;

here, with the winner’s cup at the speedboat races,   

here, in tails at the Cotillion, you take a bow,

here, by our kennel of dogs with their pink eyes,   

running like show-bred pigs in their chain-link pen;   

here, at the horseshow where my sister wins a prize;   

and here, standing like a duke among groups of men.   

Now I fold you down, my drunkard, my navigator,   

my first lost keeper, to love or look at later.

 

I hold a five-year diary that my mother kept   

for three years, telling all she does not say   

of your alcoholic tendency. You overslept,

she writes. My God, father, each Christmas Day   

with your blood, will I drink down your glass   

of wine? The diary of your hurly-burly years   

goes to my shelf to wait for my age to pass.   

Only in this hoarded span will love persevere.   

Whether you are pretty or not, I outlive you,

bend down my strange face to yours and forgive you.

 

Anne Sexton 

 

Daddy 

You do not do, you do not do   

Any more, black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot   

For thirty years, poor and white,   

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

 

Daddy, I have had to kill you.   

You died before I had time——

Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,   

Ghastly statue with one gray toe   

Big as a Frisco seal

 

And a head in the freakish Atlantic   

Where it pours bean green over blue   

In the waters off beautiful Nauset.   

I used to pray to recover you.

Ach, du.

 

In the German tongue, in the Polish town   

Scraped flat by the roller

Of wars, wars, wars.

But the name of the town is common.   

My Polack friend

 

Says there are a dozen or two.   

So I never could tell where you   

Put your foot, your root,

I never could talk to you.

The tongue stuck in my jaw.

 

It stuck in a barb wire snare.   

Ich, ich, ich, ich,

I could hardly speak.

I thought every German was you.   

And the language obscene

 

An engine, an engine

Chuffing me off like a Jew.

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.   

I began to talk like a Jew.

I think I may well be a Jew.

 

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna   

Are not very pure or true.

With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck   

And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack

I may be a bit of a Jew.

 

I have always been scared of you,

With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.   

And your neat mustache

And your Aryan eye, bright blue.

Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——

 

Not God but a swastika

So black no sky could squeak through.   

Every woman adores a Fascist,   

The boot in the face, the brute   

Brute heart of a brute like you.

 

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,   

In the picture I have of you,

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot   

But no less a devil for that, no not   

Any less the black man who

 

Bit my pretty red heart in two.

I was ten when they buried you.   

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

I thought even the bones would do.

 

But they pulled me out of the sack,   

And they stuck me together with glue.   

And then I knew what to do.

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look

 

And a love of the rack and the screw.   

And I said I do, I do.

So daddy, I’m finally through.

The black telephone’s off at the root,   

The voices just can’t worm through.

 

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——

The vampire who said he was you   

And drank my blood for a year,

Seven years, if you want to know.

Daddy, you can lie back now.

 

There’s a stake in your fat black heart   

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.   

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

 

Sylvia Plath 

 

Long Distance II 

Though my mother was already two years dead

Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,

put hot water bottles her side of the bed

and still went to renew her transport pass.

 

You couldn’t just drop in.  You had to phone.

He’d put you off an hour to give him time

to clear away her things and look alone

as though his still raw love were such a crime.

 

He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief

though sure that very soon he’d hear her key

scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.

He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.

 

I believe life ends with death, and that is all.

You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,

in my new black leather phone book there’s your name

and the disconnected number I still call.

 

Tony Harrison 

 

His Stillness 

The doctor said to my father, “You asked me

to tell you when nothing more could be done.   

That’s what I’m telling you now.” My father   

sat quite still, as he always did,

especially not moving his eyes. I had thought   

he would rave if he understood he would die,   

wave his arms and cry out. He sat up,   

thin, and clean, in his clean gown,

like a holy man. The doctor said,

“There are things we can do which might give you time,

but we cannot cure you.” My father said,   

“Thank you.” And he sat, motionless, alone,   

with the dignity of a foreign leader.

I sat beside him. This was my father.

He had known he was mortal. I had feared they would have to   

tie him down. I had not remembered

he had always held still and kept quiet to bear things,   

the liquor a way to keep still. I had not   

known him. My father had dignity. At the   

end of his life his life began

to wake in me.

 

— Sharon Olds