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Poetry, from the archives

I think this is two versions of the same poem that I was working on, somewhere around 2004.

I found them when I was cleaning out my email this morning, in an email to my brother, the writer. (I’m not sure he ever responded, but that happens to us.)

I am an infrequent poet, at best, and perhaps a poor one. (Not, like, financially poor, although I am that, too, but poor as in, “not very good at it.”)

I think in this moment I was struggling with the violence in my family’s past, and how that violence is reflected in the lives of my brothers and I, and how healing from that violence will have consequences too.

Here’s the first poem:

Family

How do you know whose childhood it is that you are living?

Whose desire was it that you take piano lessons?  For whom did you play the piano, or soccer?   Whose mosquito bites did you scratch?  Whose fights did you fight – were they your brothers’ – or your father’s sisters’?

I often wonder if what happened to me was even mine to suffer – yes, mine, for how could I have missed it? – but was it more for my brother’s children, so it wouldn’t happen to them?  Was it my mother, who bore the lash as her father whipped her soft bare skin as a child, as an adolescent?  Was it my father, who was helpless as his father cut up the new linoleum floor with a razor, who came into the house when everyone was gone and ripped up his mother’s clothes?  Was it because of her father, what happened to me, or my father’s father?  Who is to blame?  Whose violence was it, precisely?

No one called these men evil – especially not my parents.  Nor did anyone mourn the loss of me, the evil that was done to me.  They didn’t know until much later…  Did I do my healing work for the girl child that was me, or because my family needed healing, and it was mine to carry?

I often wonder about my brother’s children – what could I bear for them, so that they wouldn’t have to know what it felt like?  What have I borne already?

More, what has been borne for me, despite what was done?

 

And the second:

Generations

How do you know whose childhood it is that you are living?

Whose desire was it that you take piano lessons?  For whom did you play the piano, or soccer?   Whose mosquito bites did you scratch?  Whose fights did you fight, whose orders did you ignore,  whose room did you go into when you were grounded?

I often wonder if what happened to me was even mine to suffer – yes, mine, for how could I have missed it? – but was it more for my brother’s children, so it wouldn’t happen to them?  Or perhaps, for

Was it for me that my mother bore the lash as her father whipped her soft bare skin as a child, as an adolescent?  Were her bruises for me?  For my brothers?

And my father, who was helpless and in tears as his father cut up the new linoleum floor with a razor?  He came into the house when everyone was gone and ripped up his mother’s clothes, so that the only clothes she possessed were the clothes on her back.  Undergarments, work clothes, pajamas…  everything ripped up by his drunken rage.   Did my father think, when he was a teenager, driving his father from bar to bar so that he could get drunk – did my father vow, “I will never do this to my children”?  Did my mother vow “I will never hit my children?  She didn’t because she hit us.  Nothing at all like what she received, though.

Was it because of my mother’s father, what happened to me, or my father’s father?  Who is to blame?  What patterns were laid down?  Whose violence was it, precisely?

For you, it is all that you know.  You don’t say, they didn’t say – my dad’s a drunk, a mean drunk.  She didn’t say, my dad beats me bruises me so I can’t walk or stand or go to work as a lifeguard.  I didn’t say what happened to me, not until much, much later.

Did I do my healing work for the girl child that was me, or because my family needed healing, and it was mine to carry?  What about my brothers’ children – what would I carry for them, so that they wouldn’t have to know what it felt like?  What have I borne already?

More, what has been borne for me, despite what was done?

Seven generations it takes, they say, to heal one act of violence.  At the rate we’re going, as a family, my brother’s great-great-grandchildren might be whole.

 

What is absolutely chilling for me, to read ten years later, is that I didn’t know the half of it.

I think for me, the holy work of carrying the story of one’s family must be done by all who can do it. Our “versions” of “the truth” don’t have to match up – not at all. As Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Siblings remember family events profoundly differently, yet their experiences do not need to compete for that political football, “The Truth with a Capital T.”  My brother is a writer: so am I. It is time we both learned not to be threatened by each other’s truths: that each of us has a story that has its own integrity.

(May the peace process begin.)

 

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