My Father's Drums
His mad jazz slammed its way up basement stairs
through closed doors and double-glazed windows
all over the neighborhood. The one true
American art form, he called it, records turned up so loud
the floorboards buzzed. Bashing along with the hi-fi
he slammed through our days and nights
with a rat-a-tat rage, the fury shot down from his shoulders,
shot into his wrists. When he pounded his high-hats,
the pictures flew off their nails. Woodchopper's Ball,
The Big Crash From China; Sing, Sing, Sing;
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy. Never the whiz of his belt buckle,
never the sting of his open hand, only those long, incredulous looks
when his head came around in slow motion, eyes narrowed, lips
curling in to a deep underwater snarl:
What did you say to me, young lady?
Sometimes I believed he beat them instead,
rattled their cymbals and snares instead of the dullard girl brain
inside my skull. Wore down their tight-stretched skins
with his hammering sticks
to save my sorry hide.
This morning, driving south from home, you saw
the land still waiting, hills of it piled up
around the barns in weary winter-rusted golds.
The road a reel of film
unwinding, printing the circling redtail,
the splayed-out clouds, the fallen hulls
of crib-caged corn, the sudden dark
roundness of tree trunks against flat sky.
What is it that you want now,
you asked yourself. The answer
in the way a willow leans her yellow
leaves, just inches from the surface of the water.
Whole eras pass by like road signs,
flash metallic, netted fish.
Slow curve, detour, right turn does not stop.
No breakdown lane, no now-or-never junction.
Meanwhile in this same sky, the great hinged
bellies of warplanes swing open and the headmistress
counts her children. And Icarus falls and falls
through every painting, all of our lives in line
like these little white crosses along the road.
What you want now: a county road that snakes
its crooked way up grey half-hills, down
the long rusty slopes, finds clusters of cows
and soon the herds of summer deer at dusk,
blue chicory in ditches, green corn and cricketsong,
deep hush of amber before stars. And you want them the way
you once wanted a drink, another
drink, a cigarette. The way you once wanted
his love, or his love, or his. But more. More.
Pamela Gemin's first book, Vendettas, Charms, and Prayers,
is due September 15 from New Rivers Press. She is also co-editor of the anthology Boomer Girls: Poems by Women from the Baby Boom Generation,
forthcoming from University of Iowa Press.