with a first line from Kathleen Flenniken’s “Museum of a Lost America”
I run a gloved hand over my country
like a curator ready to frame what
my mother and father passed down.
They passed on
their country, their Ohio
and Pennsylvania of the mid century
America they left. They gave me my infancy
in Hawaii, an unhappy sojourn in Point Reyes,
California, and our one and only family
dog Heidi. They passed on
my childhood and young
adulthood in Hawaii.
You’re lucky you got your mother’s
good looks, he said more than once.
She was beautiful. Flawed, too –
and how I loved her.
After the divorce, she was
no longer Sally for him,
always your mother.
They passed down my sisters
and the foreign country of the nine
years of family life they shared
before me in silences. They passed down
their divorce in silences, unexplained.
Me at six uncomprehending,
me at fifty-one grateful now that
they didn’t use me against each other –
well, at least not with me present.
I never apologized for not having kids,
for not wanting kids. Wear boxers, he advised.
Tight briefs constrict the ability to conceive.
Now, I can see that as being true. However,
he was brilliant. Flawed, too –
and how I loved him.
Pay attention. You might want to know
how to do this someday. I loathed that
phrase. He could have taught me so much
more had he framed lessons less oppressively.
I feigned interest and returned to my books or whatever
I was really interested in, as soon as I could spin away.
Of course, his phrase was true. I knew it then, know it now.
Now what are you going to do?
This from Mom, and I didn’t care
for that phrase either. More a statement
than a question, prelude to the end of our
day together, so she could escape the puzzle
of me, her son, to reading and chores, crosswords
and more chores and caring for her housemate friend
and all of their animals.
of a chore.
She left me,
the puzzle of her.
Her love of cats
and dogs and her
difficulty in loving me.
I’m certain that she did,
despite the estrangement.
Her love of music,
a second record player
(I sold the first after I graduated
from college), and all those records and tapes –
classical, opera, hula, musicals, Tom Lehrer,
Bill Cosby, and The Bickersons.
They argued, but not in front of me.
We had a lot of good years, she admitted later.
passed on she
passed down her
love of reading, of books,
of looking things up.
Her books arrived,
in boxes and boxes
and boxes packaged
and shipped dutifully
by her housemate friend.
Cat figurines but no cobalt
blue bottles or glassware.
I guess she didn’t pass
on our last conversation;
it had to have been chaotic.
Memory of her
cobalt blue suffices.
passed on he
passed down his
love of reading, of books,
of writing things down.
He passed on his stories,
and a few of his songs. Some
of his bawdy songs still make me laugh.
After he died
Jann and Kit
and I packaged
and shipped his books
in boxes and boxes and boxes.
Some contained books he had
written, one or two contained
a last project he bequeathed to me.
His ledger cookbook went
to my sister Kit. Later, in front
of our Mom and her housemate
our sister Jann and her husband
Kit presented Dad’s ledger
to me. Shaken, I wept
and revealed my weakness.
I recognized ceremony later.
There’s some estrangement
now between my sisters and
me, but there’s still reason to hope.
My country is my life –
what remains of it,
spread out before me.
I’ve framed it anew, and
I will now go forward
with my mother and father,
my memories and artifacts.
Andrew Shattuck McBride
April 11, 2012
Kathleen Flenniken is the 2012-2014 Poet Laureate of Washington State. The first line of this poem is the first line from her poem “Museum of a Lost America” in her collection Plume: Poems by Kathleen Flenniken (2012). Plume is a collection of poems related to her life at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Plume is brilliant, fearless and profound.
I already recognize that my “Museum of a Lost Family” sprawls… and sprawls. In actuality, there are bits and pieces of a handful of poems in this, my NaPoWriMo 2012 Day 11 poem. This is part of the NaPoWriMo value and charm: as my friend Jennifer has said, the writing bequeathes more writing. Please stay tuned, despite these unruly, brimming attempts. I can tell you that they are honest and true.
Blessings to all, Andy
Here is a link to Kathleen Flenniken’s blog, The Far Field: http://kathleenflenniken.com/blog/?page_id=18
Andrew, must have been tough to do, but really well done.
Maureen Thorson’s prompts are great. This is undisciplined; I think that it is a series of intermingled poems rather than one as I have it.
All the best, Andy
Andrew, I have to agree with Doug that this poem is really well done. As the writer, certainly, you’re aware of the poem’s backstory as separate compositions–but as a reader, what I see are subtle, just-right parallelisms and light-touch repetitions that give the long piece cohesion and rhythm. The overall effect is stunning. I suppose the piece could benefit from some judicious trimming, but not much, and only after you’ve let it sit long enough to get used to seeing it as a whole poem.
You sure have a gift for writing poems that visit the “museum” of memory. This piece is poignant and sharp.
Jennifer, again – thank you so much for kind, thoughtful and considered comments. I really appreciate your validation. “The overall effect is stunning” ~ WOW!
However, I’ve been wondering about this long piece. For example, perhaps the book-related stanzas might go into a separate poem. I unintentionally left out a couple of lines about a box of largely unlabeled photographs from Mom.
Thanks again! Best wishes always, Andy
P.S. I really enjoyed your horse poem. It’s very evocative. I was there, covered in horse hair!
Andrew, I love this poem. I’ve read through it a few times, and I find myself more satisfied with the ending if I stop before reading the last four lines.I feel like those last lines are trying to tie the poem up with a bow. Without them, the poem opens outward for me, like the vast expansive country that is your life.
Jilanne, thank you so much for your comments. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I think I might be happier with:
I’ve framed it anew,
and I will now go forward
with memories and artifacts.
Best wishes, Andy