NOTES ON READING FROM THE AUTHOR:
I have moved back and forth from my home in the mountains of North Carolina over the last ten years, and each time I leave I think it’s the last time. My father died of a heart attack in 2012, and I’ve been writing poems about him ever since—many of them a juxtaposition of his life with my life in Appalachia, which he barely saw any of. I have this manuscript of poems about that, about reliving him and about gazing out at the world I’m most familiar with, and at some point I thought all the poems I was writing were for him and I didn’t know how to stop that. So the first line becomes a declaration for myself above anything else—that I can write about him without the poems being for him. Looking back, I’ve been able to revise other poems through that lens—to see them new in the most literal way. Ultimately, the poem moves beyond his death to my living and to those around me. I get to come back and walk the road near my house as a stranger, carrying all this inside me, and then I get to look out at everyone else and wonder what it is they carry, what it is they will.
WHERE’S YOUR FAVORITE AND/OR STRANGEST PLACE TO WRITE?
My favorite place to write of late is in my living room. I have a huge farm table I sit at with these two-story windows looking across my yard. There are some rental homes across the street that are empty most of the year—by late summer everyone leaves the mountain—and beyond them a ridgeline that’s almost completely red and yellow now. I like to get up before the sun and write into the morning light. The strangest place I like to write is probably in the passenger seat of my car on long trips.
In Lieu of Flowers
This is the last poem for my father.
You could say I’ve been writing it
for years. It’s kept close, always
the reflection of my shadow in a dirty
window. I can imagine him now,
as ash and a fading grin,
with a little relief—what fire must feel
as it becomes smoke and then a gray
pall ragged in the distance. There
the mountains are always home—
a sideshow to the outside world
no one pays to see. Still, opinions
run wild in conversation! I’ve got
a friend there who spends all his money
on hallucinogens and bills, who barely
keeps the electricity on. He can speak
six languages but couldn’t find the words
to save his marriage. When I talked to him
earlier his voice had come to rust.
I don’t remember what I was doing just before,
but afterward I went out
into the darkest night in five hundred years
and walked down the road—the houses
full of tourists for a few days, white
Christmas lights draped from the roofs
like icicles. It made it brighter
than it should have been, and the light
danced along the surface of the salted streets
beginning to freeze over. I think
if I’m being honest, I’ve tried to protect
my father for most of his life, and now
I don’t think he needs me to. He was an alcoholic
who’d been married twice
before he met my mother. They were, in love,
or they loved one another—and so
I know what can come of that. After
the divorce we found ways to hide
parts of ourselves. Once,
when I was twenty-one
I found a sex toy under his pillow.
I was on a trip to Washington, to see
a woman I thought I would marry
and I stayed at his place—an apartment
that smelled like Marlboros and Pine-Sol
like any motel off any highway in America.
I remember waking up in the middle of the night
and my hand brushing something
under the pillow, and then I grabbed the thing
and lifted it up into the air and stared
at it wide eyed in wonder when I realized
what it was. Then I lowered it, and covered it
with the pillow exactly as before
with a tenderness that surprised me
then went back to sleep.
We never spoke about it, and he made me
toast and coffee that morning before I left.
It feels like another life now that I’m older
and married to a different woman.
Walking along the A-frame houses
so out of style they will last forever, I can see
a family gathered around a dinner table
on vacation in a house they rented
for more than the cleaners make in six months.
There’s a Duraflame burning in the fireplace
and two dogs lounge on the furniture
as if positioned for a still life.
No one sees me walk by
and anyway, I’m a stranger and I can come
and go as I please. When my father died
we made a deal I could ask him anything.
I signed my name for his remains
and the bank took what they wanted
and for years now he keeps talking, even
when I haven’t come up with a question.
What’s strange is I don’t think
I wanted him to suffer, and stranger still
is I’m sure I did. The air is thinner
though unlike paper or a second-hand
as it circles on. I look back through the windows
and the mother is collecting plates,
one of the boys lays his head down
on the table.