Featured Prose | September 22, 2017
2016 Editors’ Prize finalist in nonfiction, “Nemerov’s Door” by Robert Wrigley
by Robert Wrigley
“Isn’t this your life?”—Richard Hugo
You think you might begin this story with an admission: you really don’t know who you are, or who you were, or how you became the one after the other. Or others—it’s not as if you’ve only been two versions of yourself. And what does it mean to have become? How is becoming accomplished? Maybe it’s about time. From time to time, there are portals. You step through and become, or you don’t. How much control over these things do you really have? You wonder if the self is a matter of becoming at all, or if it’s just something that happens to you. How would you know the difference?
But instead, you’ll start with this, which is a fact: you can fix in time much of your father’s history, and therefore your family’s and your own, according to your memory of what car he was driving at the moment, although it isn’t always easy. Once, with your mother and sister, you tried to remember all the cars he’d bought and sold. The three of you lost count around ninety-something; there were just too many, although you in particular had a knack for remembering details (“Yellow and white ’57 Mercury with a bad case of rust and push-button drive,” you said, and your mother remembered). In this way, you’re like your father, insofar as he too has an eye, and a memory, for detail, although his adoration of automobiles is not something you have come to share. If the car gets you there and back, you’re fine with it. You maintain your cars mechanically, but you do not wash them very often. This has always been beyond your father’s understanding.
The strangest car your father ever brings home is a 1950 Dodge two-door sedan. He bought it for fifty dollars. Someone has repainted it a hideous yellow. With a brush. Your mother is speechless. “But it runs good,” he says. The next day he gives it to the woman across the street, whose husband has recently died; she and her daughter are without transportation.
This is in 1967. It is unthinkable to him that the remnants of a family now fatherless should be without a car. None of you ever really knew the neighbor man except by sight, the occasional wave when coming or going. Then the neighbor man was gone for good. His daughter is the same age as you and your sister.
For most of your early life your father worked two jobs, the first as a civilian employee of the Air Force. He had his own airplane once and was just a few hours shy of his pilot’s license, when, in 1950, his wife became pregnant. With twins. He was twenty-eight. That was the end of that. The other job was selling cars. This second job—on weeknights and Saturdays—brought in extra money and probably taught him a lot about socializing and making conversation. He had been a very shy young man. You gather from your mother that your father, in his young manhood, did not have a great deal of self-confidence around other people. Until he did. You can understand that. You remember what that’s like. In regard to selling cars, your mother knew it would be good for him, being out in the world and having to talk with people he did not know.
Selling cars also gave him the means to buy cars, and it turned out he was very good at both parts of that bargain. The owner of the local Mercury dealership he worked for was an old friend—like him, like every other man of your father’s vintage in those days, a World War II veteran. Your father bought his cars at cost; sometimes he’d take them back to the lot a few weeks later, having “fixed them up.” Often a month would pass during which there would be three or four different makes and models in the driveway in almost weekly succession. Your mother seemed occasionally irritated by it but allowed his obsession. Cars were cheaper than airplanes at least.
But on the day you’re remembering, your father is retired from both of those jobs. These days he builds, repairs, refinishes, restores, and reupholsters furniture, in a shop in his basement. And he drives his favorite car ever: a 1975 BMW 2002. If there is another BMW in the small, southern Illinois town he lives in, you’ve never seen it. Your father came to German cars via the Volkswagen. Your census determined that he’s had at least ten different VWs—six Beetles, two Karmann Ghias, a Squareback, and a Camp Mobile; you may have missed a couple (should you count the Audi, you wonder?). Of all those nearly unnumberable cars, the BMW is his baby. He dotes over it. He will own it for more than two years before it is driven in the rain. That seems a strange thing to be proud of, although he is. In some unaccountable way, so are you.
And now it is you who are twenty-eight. It’s 1979. You’re visiting from Idaho for Christmas, and you and your father are flying down I-70 west toward St. Louis at a silken eighty miles per hour. He draws your attention to the purr of the BMW’s engine as you go. He always does that. You’re on the way to Left Bank Books, at the west end of the city, not far from the campus of Washington University. Your parents have given you a fifty-dollar gift certificate. They know you’ll want poetry, and they’ll leave the selection of titles to you.
It’s late December, a Russian-front sort of day: windy and spitting occasional dry snow, mid- to upper teens. Your father finds a parking place right out front. This matters. He likes being able to keep an eye on his car, and he’s guessed correctly that it will take you quite a while to make your picks.
You love bookstores the way your father loves car lots. You love the smell of books the way he loves the smell of a new car. There’s a substantial poetry selection at Left Bank. On this day, you pick out no more than five volumes in all. You would have gotten more, but one of them is a thick hardcover: The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award the year before. Also, Nemerov is a local poet. He’s been teaching at Washington University for years. It is probably the awards that prompt you to buy such an expensive book (twenty dollars), since at this point you really only know one of Nemerov’s poems.
While you study the poetry shelves, your father wanders the bookstore, spending most of his time in the World War II history section. He collects books about the War, especially books by Ernie Pyle, or about the air war. He probably buys one today; you’re not sure. He calls World War II “the good war” well before Studs Terkel’s book of that title. He means it only a little bit ironically.
After leaving the bookstore, you cross the street to a diner for lunch, which is where you mention to your father that Howard Nemerov was a pilot in the war, and that he teaches over at Wash U. This makes the poet vastly more interesting to your father—the pilot part, at least—although you suspect your father is also impressed with the prizes emblazoned on the cover of Nemerov’s book. He might be thinking that this is an opportunity, some sidelong entry into a part of the world you mean to join, a world in which you publish books that win big prizes. He knows it’s good to meet people. Sometimes they can help you. Or maybe he thinks he might play a part in helping you get there, wherever it is you’re going. He might be thinking, “You’re aiming to be a poet, right?” (You believe you already are.)
So he suggests you head over to Washington University after lunch, to see if you can find the poet, Howard Nemerov.
“It’s semester break, Dad,” you say. “He’s not going to be on campus.”
“You never know unless you try,” he replies.
You split a Reuben sandwich, and each of you has a cup of some kind of dark, rich soup with barley. Maybe there’s a poster on one of the diner walls depicting Lou Brock stealing a base. A common enough thing around St. Louis. You’ve been a St. Louis Cardinals fan since your childhood. Your father, on the other hand, has never understood baseball, or any other sport, for that matter. He understands cars and airplanes and work. He has never seen the point in games. You wonder if poetry, too, does not seem to him some sort of game, a way of saying something by not exactly saying it at all, or by saying something else. You understand why he might think that, although you never ask him what he thinks about what you do. He’s proud of you, although he seems to understand your obsession no more, and in some ways perhaps a lot less, than you understand his.
When he was a very young man, your father, with virtually no education, figured he’d have to find a way to buy an old truck and make a living hauling away trash for people. This was the late 1930s, deep in the Great Depression; he could not imagine any other possibilities for himself. But then the friend of a doting and resourceful aunt somehow finagled him a slot in a government-sponsored aircraft maintenance course at Parks Air College, not far from his hometown. It is, he says, the luckiest thing that ever happened to him in his life, after meeting your mother. It is a portal he steps through.
After lunch, your father pays the tab, then steers the BMW in the direction of Washington University.
You remember reading the one poem of Nemerov’s you know in an anthology five or six years before. There were other Nemerov poems in that collection, but if you read them, you do not remember them. This one is called “The View from an Attic Window.” It’s elaborately formal, but the formal intricacy doesn’t put you off the way it does in so many other poems of the time (rhyme, and the counting of syllables and/or stresses, will take you a few more years to truly hear and thus to cotton to). What affects you most about the poem is its subject, really, and its point of view. The speaker is a man looking back on an experience from childhood, and there is something about that boy’s experience that makes you feel as though it was exactly like your own.
“The View from an Attic Window” is a poem about mortality. Or rather, it’s about intimations of mortality, about the moment when a boy comes to an unbidden awareness that everyone—everyone he knows and loves, everyone everywhere, even he himself—will die. When did you become aware of mortality? You don’t remember. There must have been such a moment, when you realized that, yes, your father and your mother, for example, would die, like everyone else, including yourself. All you know is, from the first time you read Nemerov’s poem, it seemed that that moment was surely like the one the poem describes.
So now you reread the first part of “The View from an Attic Window” (it is arranged in two numbered sections):
Among the high-branching, leafless boughs
Above the roof-peaks of the town,
Snowflakes unnumberably come down.
I watched out of the attic window
The laced sway of family trees,
Whose strict, reserved gentility,
Trembling, impossible to bow,
Received the appalling fall of snow.
All during Sunday afternoon,
Not storming, but befittingly,
Out of a still, grey, devout sky,
The snowflakes fell, until all shapes
Went under, and thickening, drunken lines
Cobwebbed the sleep of solemn pines.
Up in the attic, among many things
Inherited and out of style,
I cried, then fell asleep awhile,
Waking at night now, as the snow-
flakes from darkness to darkness go
Past yellow lights in the street below.
There is nothing about your child’s life that resembles that of the boy in the poem. You never had a house with an attic, at least not one large enough to hold a lot of “inherited” things. Let alone with a window. Then again, despite the foreignness of the setting, the situation strikes you as universal. Besides, it’s not the place as much as the situation: a boy, alone, coming to a terrible and terrifying awareness. And it’s also the voice: the words of an adult man—precise, formal, rich with detail and allusion—that capture the archetypal and convincing sadness of the boy’s realization. It’s a knowledge that, once known, can never be unknown again. At first, in the opening section, the boy just seems sad; perhaps he’s merely lonely, and his crying is born of what he is uncertain about. Anyone who has managed to live the entirety of a child’s life without ever being unaccountably sad has lived a very charmed existence indeed. Maybe it’s solitude itself, the proximity of alone to lonely, the sense that the absence of your family—even if they are merely elsewhere in the same house—suggests a loss, even an abandonment, never to be overcome.
When your father was eleven or so, he was sent to spend a couple of successive summers with distant relations on the other side of the state. How it was he traveled from Collinsville, just east of St. Louis, all the way to a farm near Clay City, not far from the Indiana line, you don’t know. Neither of his parents ever drove a car. The reason for this relocation was, according to family lore, that he was a “sickly” child, and it was thought that fresh air and farm work would do him good. A second reason was that his family was profoundly impoverished. He was the eldest of three children; it was 1933 or ’34. His coal-miner father was out of work. In photographs from the time, your father is extremely skinny; he looks malnourished. At least on the farm there would be plenty to eat.
But what was that like? Exile? Banishment? Did he miss his parents? His younger brother and sister? You remember three stories he used to tell of his summers on the farm. One made him laugh in the telling. He’d learned that if he used his slingshot to pop a pebble off the old plow mule’s rump, the animal would leap in the air and fart prodigiously. If that seems cruel to you now, you remember the other stories. Your father told of watching the man, the farmer, beat a milk cow bloody with a two-by-four after she kicked her milk pail over. Your father could hardly bear to tell the story, but he did, regularly, and it always ended the same way. That man (Fritz Minnie was his name) wound up dying of some sort of agonizing cancer of the mouth. Your father believed there was some connection, possibly direct cause and effect, between the man’s cruelty to animals and his awful fate, although your father has never believed in God.
The farmer’s wife on the other hand, “Miss Minnie,” seemed to be someone he almost loved. You suppose it was in those years on the farm that your father learned about mortality. In the third story he would tell, he spoke of Miss Minnie handing him a wooden crate of newborn kittens and telling him to take them out to the pump, fill a bucket, and drown them. He went out dutifully and filled the bucket, but he couldn’t do it. There were five of them, he said. Their eyes were not yet open. Miss Minnie must have been watching from the kitchen window, because soon she came out and, keeping your father close at hand, showed him how it was done. One by one, she picked up each kitten by the tail and dangled it in the water until it drowned.
And this is the part of the story your father could not get over, nor could you, when he told it. The kittens would struggle some, and as they did, Miss Minnie spoke to them in what he said was her tenderest tone of voice.
“There, there,” she said. “I know, I know. It will all be over soon.”
You are not exactly sure what any of this has to do with Nemerov’s poem. Perhaps it’s nothing more than the way these two boys—Nemerov’s character and your father—come to be aware of mortality. Nemerov’s boy comes to his realization intellectually, by reading the signs and portents in the attic around him. For your father, it seems to have been drowned kittens. You can’t remember when you first heard your father tell the stories of his summers on the farm, though you’re sure it was long before you were a man. Somehow in all of this, you are yourself, and you are also your father, and Nemerov’s boy in the attic.
By now, you have read many of Nemerov’s poems, and this one remains the poem you remember and admire most, although you’re not exactly sure why or that you want to know why. Part of it is simply that the poem moves you deeply—it always has. And that worries you. You have been trained, and you have trained yourself, to regard the possibility of being moved by a poem as a little bit suspect. Does the poem ask for a deeper emotional response than it earns? The fear of sentimentality, this is. What would your father make of that? He was a lover of sloppy and sentimental movies.
It also worries you that you have tried and failed—on several occasions—to write a poem about your father’s memory of Miss Minnie and the kittens. No, that’s not true. It doesn’t worry you, but you’re puzzled by it, puzzled by your failure; it seems ready-made. In one version, the poem’s main character is your father; in another, it’s Miss Minnie herself. You are able to imagine what it must have been like to be your father as a boy, but you believe you’re also able to imagine being Miss Minnie. Was she offering your father a lesson about the realities of farm life or of life in general? Sometimes you have to see things? You have to fight in a war? You have to drown cats?
You haven’t given up on the possibility of a poem. Not yet.
There’s also this detail: it was your father’s chore, afterward, to take the carcasses out and throw them on the manure pile behind the barn. Likewise, he couldn’t do that, exactly. He took a pitchfork and dug a little grave in the side of the pile and buried them all together.
You read the second part of Nemerov’s poem.
I cried because life is hopeless and beautiful.
And like a child I cried myself to sleep
High in the head of the house, feeling the hull
Beneath me pitch and roll among the steep
Mountains and valleys of the many years
That brought me to tears.
Down in the cellar, furnace and washing machine,
Pump, fuse-box, water heater, work their hearts
Out at my life, which narrowly runs between
Them and this cemetery of spare parts
For discontinued men, whose hats and canes
Are my rich remains.
And women, their portraits and wedding gowns
Stacked in the corners, brooding in wooden trunks;
And children’s rattles, books about lions and clowns;
And headless, hanging dresses swayed like drunks
Whenever a living footstep shakes the floor;
I mention no more;
But what I thought today, that made me cry,
Is this, that we live in two kinds of thing:
The powerful trees, thrusting into the sky
Their black patience, are one, and that branching
Relation teaches how we endure and grow;
The other is the snow,
Falling in a white chaos from the sky,
As many as the sands of all the seas,
As all the men who died or who will die,
As stars in heaven, as leaves of all the trees;
As Abraham was promised of his seed;
Till I, high in the tower of my time
Among familiar ruins, began to cry
For accident, sickness, justice, war and crime,
Because all died, because I had to die.
The snow fell, the trees stood, the promise kept,
And a child I slept.
You don’t know if your father, during his summers on the farm, slept in a bed or on the floor or if he had a room, perhaps in the attic. You wonder how he slept that night after the drowning of the kittens. For years, when he tells the stories, he becomes, for the time of the telling at least, melancholy. Once or twice, it almost seems that he might cry, but he never does. He shakes his head in wonder or sadness or both. He always says, “The poor old man.” You wonder about that.
In the poem, the trees, which teach us “how we endure and grow,” are the one thing, and the snow, that “white chaos from the sky,” is the other. One is life and one is time? Such a reductive reading, yet accurate, to a point. You wonder what it would have been like to lead your father through Nemerov’s poem, to teach him how it might be read. Would that have been a good thing? What would he have thought about the assertion that “life is hopeless and beautiful”? You imagine him listening, and considering, then saying something like, “Huh. Well, no shit.” Could you have found a way to explain to him that the poetry is not in what the poem says but in how it says what it says? That sometimes the work of poetry is to tell us what we already know? Could you have explained that poems are a little like cars? Almost any car—even a badly hand-painted old Dodge—would have gotten you across the river to the bookstore and back. Fuel, engine, transmission, and tires. Words, lines, figures, and imagination. They are not all equal.
The campus of Washington University is nearly deserted that day, although you find a woman who aims you toward the building where the English Department is located, and the building is (strangely, it seems to you) unlocked. There must be a directory in the entryway, for soon you and your father are climbing a staircase and heading down a half-lit hallway toward Nemerov’s door.
If there is anything on the door—cartoon, witty quote, a poem, the usual sorts of things seen on professors’ doors everywhere—you don’t notice it. Probably there’s a nameplate. But you hesitate. You’re nervous. Why would Nemerov be here now? It seems pointless. And there may be something else, too. Embarrassment? Is it because you are there with your father, which would seem to make you as much child as poet? What kind of poet goes around meeting other poets with his father in tow? Is it more than that? This isn’t something you would want your father to feel you feeling: What, you wonder, could your father possibly talk about with Howard Nemerov, the poet?
Well, airplanes, for one thing. Or World War II.
And what about you? Poetry? You’re pretty sure you know which of you—you or your father—could better hold up his half of a conversation.
So there you are, hesitating, when your father says, “Go on. Knock.”
Years later, you cannot separate the picture of Nemerov on the cover of his book—brush of mostly gray hair, thoughtful look on his face, glasses held in his right hand just before his chin—from the figure you see when the door opens. There he is, just as in life. Or just as on the cover.
“Mr. Nemerov,” you say. “I wonder if you wouldn’t mind signing your book for me?” You hold out the book like an offering.
He doesn’t say a word but opens the door to let you and your father in. He rolls his chair back to his desk (what’s on the desk? why don’t you notice?), signs the book—no inscription, no date, just a signature on the full title page—then returns it to you.
“I’m a poet myself,” you say. “I’ve just published my first book.”
If you’d known you were going to meet Howard Nemerov, you might have brought along a copy to give him. But in some way you are also glad you didn’t. It is so slender, so slight. A seedling, a Matchbox car.
“Congratulations,” Nemerov says.
“This is my father, Arvil Wrigley.” You will realize later that you never mention your own name and Nemerov never asks. They shake hands, say hello, pleased to meet you, or something like that.
Then silence, until you say, “Well, thank you very much,” and Nemerov nods. He seems ready for you to go. You think you should say something about “The View from an Attic Window,” but you can’t imagine what it might be. Somehow every word of the poem is unavailable to you now. So you say goodbye, and you and your father back out the door and it closes. (Was Nemerov at work? Had you interrupted a poem?)
“He seems like a nice guy,” your father says.
When you get back to the BMW, he takes up Nemerov’s book to look at the signature, which is in black ink, slanted slightly right and highly legible. Your father approves of that.
He slips a cassette into the BMW’s tape player. He had the cassette player installed a year or two ago and found the plastic bezel that held it tacky-looking, even offensive, in the otherwise impeccably appointed BMW dash, so he disassembled it all and reinstalled it, this time mounted in a beautifully finished piece of cherry wood.
He’s put in Lionel Hampton. He knows you’ll like that. The two of you say little on the way back home. It’s a nice drive, though, the wind and snow notwithstanding. It’s the snow that makes you remember the snow in Nemerov’s poem. Could you have spoken about that? You think to yourself that snow is always a symbol—it was born that way—and you know what it’s a symbol of, even this particular snow, blowing across the interstate.
Although he is just two years younger, your father outlives Nemerov by better than twenty years, a full generation, but for most of his last decade and more, your father’s life is afflicted. He is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease late, around his eightieth birthday. A man with such very skilled hands, even until the onset of the disease, he is for most of those last years someone, as he puts it, who “can’t do anything anymore.” His power tools sit quiet in his shop. There are days when he insists he’s going to work, and your mother has to sit barricading the door to keep him from the deadly stairs. In the last year he can still hobble to the john, but it takes him a while. Sometimes he doesn’t make it. He reads, but mostly newspapers. He can no longer read books; he forgets what’s happened from one chapter, or even one page, to the next. He still likes, as your mother says, to “look at” magazines about airplanes or cars or working with wood; he remains a subscriber to Aviation History, Car & Driver, and Fine Woodworking. She offers him a copy, and she always asks the same way: “Do you want to look at your airplane magazine?” “Would you like to look at Car & Driver?” Occasionally she just hands him one: “Here, look at your woodworking magazine.” It doesn’t matter if the issue is a new one or an old one. If he’s looked at it before, he doesn’t remember.
But your father never forgets the trip to see Nemerov. When you visit in April 2014, four months before your father’s death, you remind him about it.
“He seemed like a nice guy,” your father says.
You’re trying to figure it out—that trip, that day. It seems that you were some kind of intermediary between two men of similar age and historical experience. There is something about the fraternity of World War II veterans that made them—what? Equals? Are there a similar brother- and sisterhood of poets? You are the child of one of these men but sort of a drive-by acolyte of the other (it’s no longer the prizes now; it’s the poem). Yet you have always had the sense that your father meant to deliver you to another world that day. It felt like a passage. This has, you’re sure of it, something to do with the poem and with your long awareness of mortality, including your father’s. That night years ago, after the day you met Nemerov, you read, in the guest room of your parents’ house, “The View from an Attic Window” again and again and again. The more your read, the more you saw that its art is in how its attention to a commonplace assertion—that life is hopeless and beautiful—is made not merely meaning but poetry. Something like magic is in that, although in truth it is no more than poetic engineering. Not all poems achieve what might be called “the condition of poetry,” that point at which the words on the page are more than the words on the page. What would it have been like to try to explain such a thing to your father?
Then again, he likes to tell you, very few automobiles are manufactured to such precise tolerances as the BMW.
All that’s between you and Nemerov is poetry. All that’s between Nemerov and your father is the good war, and maybe airplanes. Nemerov came from wealth and privilege, your father from abject poverty. Nemerov graduated from Harvard; your father did not quite finish the fifth grade in a degraded former coal-mining town. Did you mean to be like Nemerov? Only insofar as you meant to be a poet. Did you mean to be like your father? You’re not sure you can say how it is you’re like him even now. The kinds of things you notice or remember? That you make things? That you fix things? Poems, mostly. You’re fairly sure your father has read all of your books; if he has ever read poems by anyone else you would be surprised. Why would he? For your father, poetry is the kind of thing his son writes.
You have a picture taken during that same April visit, a few months before your father would die, in which he’s holding—reading, it appears—your then-new book of poems. It’s your ninth; your father must be astonished that you have so much to say about whatever it is you’re saying. You never talk about your poems with him. Not ever. He doesn’t know what to say about them, and you don’t want that to embarrass him. But why don’t you help him? Why didn’t you? Which is more difficult, you wonder: learning to read a poem or learning to fly an airplane?
Four months later, you make another visit to Illinois. Your mother knows it’s time, and when she calls, you come. The first couple of days, your father is lucid but in considerable pain. You take your laptop to him in his bed and show him videos of Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell dancing. He loves that stuff. You show him YouTube videos of fighter pilots and bomber missions in World War II. Those keep his interest for a while and keep his mind off his pain. For all the inevitability, it seems it is still very difficult to die. He watches the videos, but mostly he’s transfixed by the laptop itself. What a sleek and fascinating machine, so beautifully made. He can’t keep his hands off it. You call up pictures of 1975 BMW 2002s. You ransack photo albums in order to show him pictures of as many of his cars as you can find. That takes a couple of hours.
On the third day, hospice recommends morphine and sedation, so the next morning he is, at best, semiconscious. You sing him a couple of songs as he lies in the hospital bed, in the bedroom of the house he has lived in for more than forty years. You sing “Making Whoopee” and “My Buddy.” You know what he likes. You wish you’d brought a guitar. You read him a couple of your poems, too, ones that have to do with him; all of your books are on a shelf in that room. By the second day of end-of-life medication, he is continuously asleep or, more accurately, unconscious.
In the midst of a lengthy sit alongside his bed, you speak softly but directly into his ear. You find you can’t take your eyes from his ear; it is wrinkled and very beautiful. You even take a picture of it. Just his ear.
You say, “You’re close to the end, Dad, you know? But Mom and Kitty and I, we’re going to be OK. We’re all here. We love you, and we’re all going to be OK.”
You wonder if he might have whispered something similar to his own dying father, more than four decades ago, although that seems unlikely. Something about generations and genealogies, about certain things that just aren’t, or weren’t, spoken. Language for your father and for his father too, no doubt, is and was above all a practical tool, for the transmission of information. You could make an argument on behalf of the practicality of poetry, but you don’t know how much you would believe it. Could you have ever explained to your father that yes, poetry is practical, but that calling it practical somehow demeans it? In your case, is it poetry, or is it the passage of time, that has made you able to say what you’ve just said to him? How in the world have you come to believe so much in words?
What you want to do is to give your father permission to let go, if he can.
You should have asked him, earlier on, when he could still speak, if he knew what had become of the neighbor woman he’d given the old Dodge to. You counted the Dodge in the census, although he owned it for fewer than twenty-four hours—that must have been a record. What might have become of her daughter? (You remember she had red hair; her name was Frances.) Are these people part of an intricate genealogy of your own, part of a genealogy represented by your father’s relationship to cars, of all things? Would you have remembered the Dodge at all, if he had not made a gift of it? And what does it mean that you know there is a poem in the details of this memory?
Nemerov’s boy watches the falling snow from his perch in the prow of his house, while you seem to be standing in a used car lot. Most of your father’s many cars are junk now, or spare parts. Midway through the seventh decade of your life, your memories of your father are abundant and various, although you think it would please him to know that so many of the recollections you have of him are connected with his cars. But this place, this time, this ride, this car; this poem, this snow, this man named Nemerov, a poet, and you and your father: What is the significance of these several kinds of thing?
You’re sitting alongside your father’s bed, thinking about it. Your father is not his cars; will you be the sum of your poems? Do you write your way toward identity? Or away from it? You make a note to yourself to reread Eliot’s essays. Though they were born fewer than ten miles apart, it is unlikely your father has ever known who T.S. Eliot is. So what? But even here, sitting alongside your father’s deathbed, your own mind comes back to poetry, unbidden. Poetry has changed the way you think and feel. In your father’s dying brain, among the clouds of sedative and morphine, what is happening? How is his brain processing its own demise? How is it processing the things you say or sing? Another bride, another June. A bed is a bed, the light is the light, a car is a car, a word is just a word. Isn’t it?
At some point near the beginning of those last days, you could have read your father “The View from an Attic Window.” Given the circumstances, and the memory, that too would have been appropriate. If you had, you would have reminded him of meeting the famous poet; that you’d driven to St. Louis in the BMW; that off and on it was snowing; and that it was he who delivered you to Nemerov’s door and bid you knock.
You would have said, “Nemerov was a pilot, remember?” And there you would have been again, in the shared memory of that car, that bookstore, that diner, and then that dimly lit hallway and more. Now here you are, awaiting the inevitable. You could have told your father what the poem was about and why you admired it. But you didn’t. What weighed more: the fear that he would not understand or the fear that you couldn’t make it clear?
You wait. You all wait. As far as you can tell, your father is not afraid.
From a few yards away, outside the bedroom door, you hear the ticking and chiming, at each quarter hour, of a clock your father made forty years before. Each sculpted piece scrolled and mitered to perfection; a crowning finial turned beautifully on a lathe; the swirling cherry wood finished just right. You’re amazed by the skill such a making must have required. Will Nemerov’s poem outlast it? Will any of yours?
But you can’t see the clock now. You can only hear it, and you wonder if your father hears it too: the tick-tock ratcheting of days, the accumulation of seconds, and the diminution of them too. Counting up, counting down. You think about that. Even now, in this waiting for the end, you could tell him those ticks and tocks are symbols, and if he could hear you, if only he could speak, you’re certain he would tell you he understands. Of course he does.
It’s four pm, August 1, 2014. Your father will die in a little over four hours. Somewhere on earth, in the mountains of the southern hemisphere, at least, almost certainly, snow falls.
Robert Wrigley is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho. Winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award in 2000, his most recent book, Box, was published in March, 2017, by Penguin. He lives in the woods of north central Idaho with his wife, the writer Kim Barnes.
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