…until my sister, ever tactless, said,
“You’re assuming that you’re a great man.” 
And the words fled from the room,
dodged the mad wheels of summer
motor-cyclists, slapped the flags
hoisted for the Labour Day Parade,
ripped bunting from storefronts,
skimmed like a skate up the Hudson,
slid past the currents threatening
to swallow them up; howled like a skin-
salted higue over the Brooklyn Bridge,
rose higher, higher, wailing, drumming
on windows no one would open.

And I who’d helped him dream
this greatness, could not speak.
While his thick fingers stretched
the accordion out like long, lost years.
And he, pretending not to hear
my sister’s words spoke on.

Brooding in every corner
of the room, the lumbering shadow
formed itself into a question:
“Why? Why this? What way
to reconcile my father, proud, erect,
dressed in his well-pressed suits,
keeping his Cadillac in mint condition?
What way to understand the squalor
he returned to every day?

“No words,” she’d said, “there are no words
that can describe the horror.
No wonder he has kept us out.” 

He’d finished his stories
of illustrious men, their deprivations,
great deeds they’d left behind them.
He played his final, favourite hymn,
finding the notes by instinct, as it seemed:
“Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh.
Shadows of the evening, steal across the sky.” 

How often had he looked into the shapes
behind the shadows? How often had he seen,
among whatever demons haunted him,
his children, whom he said he’d loved
and left so many years ago?
Perhaps for him another kind of greatness:
to straddle two opposing worlds
and find some foothold; to gaze
into the heart of his own darkness,
square his shoulders and walk on;
never to say, “This punishment
is more that I can bear.”

Sitting this summer evening in this
Brooklyn room my sister laboured
to restore, what does it matter now?
We look behind the mask/ and choose to love him still.


from The Stone Gatherer (Peepal Tree, 2009), © Esther Phillips 2009, used by permission of the author and the publisher.

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