I grew up in northern Indiana where the land and the language are flat. Unlike Zora Neale Hurston who arrived in New York with “a map of Dixie” on her tongue, I don’t come from a community with a rich oral culture or one that reveled in language play. In fact, it often was the opposite. We were suspicious of people who were too glib. I took enormous offense in graduate school when a professor wrote on a paper that an observation was “clever.” Clever was an adjective applied to lawyers who got ax murderers off on technicalities. Clever was suspicious verbal ingenuity. Clever was not a compliment.
The Eskimos may have fifty words for snow, but we would make one word have fifty different meanings. In particular, we made heavy use of “Fine,” “Good,” and “Okay.” Depending on how it’s used, “fine” could mean “Great” or “I hear you” or “Get away from me” or “Okay” or dozens of other things.
I spent a year in Europe, met the woman I would marry, re-thought and re-arranged my life, and when I came home and my father asked, “How was France?” I said, “It was fine. Fine.” And he replied “Good. Good.”
When my father broke his neck, I called him almost every day to check in. I would ask, “How are you, Pop?” He would say, “Fine. Fine.” I would respond, “Good.” And that would be that. “Okay, I’ll talk to you later.” “Okay.”
In part, this may be why people are surprised that I write poetry. It seems unusual for someone so laconic. But, it also explains why I write the type of poems that I do. Yes, the intonation of “good,” “fine,” and “okay” provides a great deal of information, but often the words are superfluous. My father already knew my time in Europe had been life-changing; a woman was coming back to the States with me. When he broke his neck, I didn’t have to say I was concerned when I called, the concern was obvious in the fact I was calling. And, of course, he was “fine.” He was still alive after breaking his neck for god’s sake.
So, mostly, I write without frills or curlicues in a language that isn’t particularly “poetic.” I look for the gesture, the revealing moment, the woman putting her hand on her partner’s leg during a dinner party which says, “Careful. You’re talking too much. Reign it in.” Often it’s something that may not seem important at the time – a conversation in the grocery, a man washing a car, or in the case of the following poem, the putting on of a scarf.
A Winter Dialogue
We decide to take a break from the eating, drinking,
and arguing -- our traditional holiday pastimes --
to walk around the ice-encased neighborhood.
In the hallway, we sort through the piles of coats,
hats, and gloves, pulling out what we think we need,
and when I get to the door my father calls me back
to drape a scarf around my neck. In my forties,
I don’t like scarves anymore than when I was six,
but, now, having kids, I recognize what his fingers
are trying to say as they adjust the wool, and, I hope,
he recognizes what I’m trying to say by not moving.
It’s not much, but since neither of us needs anything
the other can buy, we try to exchange what we can,
a protective touch and a willingness to be touched.