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The Lost Father

by Paul Mariani


About Herodotus there is a kind
of reliability, as when he tells
the story of the phoenix, heard
no doubt firsthand, how
the offspring will lug the father

in a ball of myrrh across the sea,
commit them all to flames, to rise
itself renewed, and all its redgold
feathers dipped with dew. He tells
the story as he says he heard it,

though he is quick to add: I myself
have never seen him. . . .
This pocket watch is at least
sixty years old, so the squinteyed
jeweler up in Turners told me

when I brought the pieces in
for him to put together. After
forty years mummywrapped in faded
tissue, of course the guts were rusted.
But it was all she’d somehow kept

enough intact to pass over from
her father to her son. “He was standing
in his robe,” she said, “one hand
on the doorjamb, while the other
rubbed his chest. Tell your

mother to come here a second. I stopped
playing with my doll when I saw him
wince like that and did what I was
told. Soon there was the white
ambulance. It was the last I ever

saw him, that is, alive.” Build us
a story out of that one: the roaring
boy’s exact contemporary, though this
one moves in silence. ’99 to ’33:
on the trail after the elusive

Villa at 17, then a bare year later
sucking hun gas in some French trench.
Trucking entrepreneur in smalltown
Singac, burning down with Bright’s,
then death. In the one picture I have

of him, he’s cut his own head off, so
that we may better see his sleek stallion,
which is army issue, like that saddle
carbine. But to hear his old watch tick again
clink clunk clink clunk, reassembled

like the limbs of some Egyptian god,
the cold bright brass nested against
my ear, as often he must have done—
this gives comfort. In less time
than it takes the second hand to jerk

from one line to the next, his bright
eyes begin to wink at my frightened
mother, trying to console her, as I
know he must have done, though I should
add, I myself have never seen him.

 

Paul Mariani is completing a biography of William Carlos Williams, to be published by Oxford University Press. His first book of poetry, Timing Devices, will be out this spring from Godine. (1979)


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