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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Poem: The Past speaks

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The Past is a prayer
for this future,

his flannel cuffs
rolled up to the elbows

where tattooed forearms
descend
and veined wrists
rise up like a sunrise,

his knuckles chapped
rocky hills

with outcropping
thumbs hooked in belt loops
on a pair of corduroy trousers,

their velvet
time-scraped
at the knees.

He shifts his big-boot feet
and finally raises his eyes,
staring straight from under

hooded brows
at me
his reckless daughter,
removing his belt,

I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this . . .




Listen to a podcast of this poem here.

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50 comments:

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

And come to this it has ... very painfully. The exquisite attention to detail in the imagery, with the "thumbs hooked in belt loops" the worn trousers time-faded at the knees, the wrists rising up like sunrises and chapped rocky hill knuckles ... all fix the reader's powers of observation so keenly on the scene that the ensuing denouement, though unstated, is made all the more brutal and troubling. Quite powerful.

One question, about the beginning "The Past is a prayer / for this future": is the scene depicted here the past-prayer and this poem, in the present, its future; or is the past-prayer prior to the scene? Or do these events and memories and prayers chase each other around in our minds defying any notion of chronology?

Whoever and wherever that reckless girl is right now, something in me longs to hold her.

Bonnie said...

Well ... I am melting after reading Lorenzo's tender words to you and the little one inside of you.

I was 'seduced' by your words into the comfort of enjoying such a detailed description of a man of another time and place ... and then jolted to attention by the mention of the belt and the ominous declaration with which he tries to excuse his intent.

Quite horrifying how fine people were encouraged to abuse their little loved ones by Biblical verse ... e.g. "Spare the rod and spoil the child".

My mother did not have a violent bone in her body and never raised her voice or a hand to us at home. But her need for approbation brought out different behavior at the Kingdom Hall, where if we whispered or squirmed, she would take us outside and tear a switch of a tree with which she measured out her biblically-endorsed (should I say encouraged) discipline.

As you see, you post evokes many memories for me. Isn't it amazing that we were able to raise fine, upstanding children without having to resort to corporal punishment as exhorted by religion?

Babs-beetle said...

Very powerful, but also very sad. The last line or two came as a shock to me.

The only time we got that sort of punishment as children was at school, from our headmasters. We, in Britain, didn't have the same 'religious' teaching, of which I am grateful.

Louise Gallagher said...

My father's use of the belt was not Biblically inspired.

It was all he knew to do. All he understood possible in a world he could not control, with a child he could not will, to bend to his will.

Powerful poem Ruth -- thank you.

Brendan said...

Such irony between title and lysis. An intricate weave of history there between a remembered scene with a father whose history and scars are evident enough turning to discipline a daughter whose future is known only to the speaker, all of this to say, look what I've become, not the history you feared and lived at all. Very devious in its spinning mirror, coming full circle to discipline the father who couldn't see past his "hooded eyes." - Brendan

Ruth said...

Lorenzo, thank you so much for that warm kindness in response to the pain in this poem, and in the poet.

The scene here is bigger than me and a literal father. It's a metaphor, truly for the past, all of our past. The worn out centuries, millenia, that have brought us here, but sadly have not taught us what we needed to learn.

Do I have a father's belt in my own past? Yes. Not too many times, because I wasn't too reckless a girl, except with my mouth mostly, or sometimes not telling my parents where I was going. My father wore a white shirt and black tie, not a flannel, when he whipped me. After he mellowed into a warm older man, he wore flannel.

The future in the poem is now. I want us to learn from the past, in our little lives, and in the big picture. I was pulling out stuff packed in boxes this week, things we haven't looked at since we moved to the farm. Why do I keep these things, hidden away? Why do I keep them at all? What is tucked in there that I forgot, and need to remember into this current future?

Ruth said...

Bonnie, our parents really thought they were doing the right thing. In the context of other Christian parents, where most of them thought that spanking kids was an essential exhortation, if you didn't do it, you believed that truly your children will fall off the face of the earth in disrepair.

Ruth said...

Babs, times have changed a lot here. Now child protective services will come take your children away if you are found out to spank them. There are laws against such things.

There is something very wrong with the notion of using brutal force, especially with children.

Ruth said...

Louise, we live in places where we want to control people to be good. Our governments are run on this, and sometimes they overstep. I see parents be just as silly with things like grounding as they are with spanking. They ground kids from Facebook, or whatever, hoping the deprivation will make them think twice before whatever they did wrong. I think consequences should be logical and related. But it's really tough knowing how to parent, and how to let your child live with the consequences of their behavior while also wanting to keep them safe and whole.

ellen abbott said...

I like this. I had to read it twice. First I read it as a metaphor which from the title I assumed it was (and it is) until I got to the end which was totally unexpected. Then I read it again as an account of a moment.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Brendan. Sadly, this is a real and potent scene for many of us. The words I heard before I received a spanking from my father were "This hurts me more than it hurts you . . . "

Oddly enough, this poem did not sprout out of my personal experiences with spankings, though I have the memories embedded in my rump. This came out of a frustration with our current state of affairs in the world, as a big human child that hasn't learned much of anything, in spite of the brutal beatings of our past.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Ellen, for reading it as metaphor, and as a potent memory. I guess I wonder how our past is punishing us in this current moment, and will keep on punishing us until we get it right. Can we ever get it right?

Pat said...

This is so powerful.I love your use of metaphors here. Why can't we learn from our mistakes from the past? Useless wars, pollution, energy....

Ann Grenier said...

Your poem is very powerful. I thought perhaps it was a piece for a novel. Great description; I gasped for breath at the end. Thanks for your explanations. I want to reread a few times to realize your world metaphor.

Ginnie said...

So strange, Sister: It's not the belt I remember but the slap of a hand across my mouth. Once I had to go to mid-week prayer meeting with swollen lips. One hardly ever forgets that. But, like you, thankfully, it didn't happen often.

Apart from that, since I have no memory of Dad in a flannel shirt, I do think of 'the past' and wonder if we have learned anything about this 'future' as we know it now?

Oliag said...

So many of us will see so much in this Ruth!

Like Bonnie I was seduced by the first lines...fondly picturing the tatooed forearms and knee-worn corduroys...enjoying your descriptions and thinking this doesn't sound like your father...Then WHAM!...the belt and the reckless girl and the hope. A jolt that made a good poem great. A most meaningful and for me understandable metaphor.


The belt was very occaisionally used in my childhood home too...usually more as a threat. I remember the day when I realized that I could defy it...

Dutchbaby said...

Your last stanzas took my breath away. I dearly hoped it wasn't you, but alas...

I only remember my oldest sister being spanked, but we were all subjected to verbal abuse.

I hope that writing this poem was cathartic for you.

George said...

Read literally, the poem (beautifully recited by you) is quite evocative for me, given the fact that I was whipped with a belt or a paddle at school almost every year of my childhood, the last whipping coming during my senior year in high school. Your response to Lorenzo, however, indicates that you are perhaps more concerned with the punishment which comes from the past when we have failed to learn what we needed to learn. I venture to say that burn of a corporeal punishment pales in comparison to the pain that flows from making the same mistakes over and over again. At some point in "The Four Quartets," Eliot laments that "we had the experience, but missed its meaning."

profhart said...

And our parents believed that if they didn't keep their children in line, they would fall off the earth....the Eli story was well known in our house....

rosaria said...

This is such a treat, a poem, and the interpretations shared by your readers.
The scene took me back to my childhood too, your father, every father of that era. The situation, past superimposing itself on the present, like a brute, belittling the child, is what shines through for me.
Many things evoked here.
Brava.

Arti said...

Ruth, I hear you. listening to your voice add realism and poignancy. I have no answer. The recent "Tiger Mom" fad just raised the issue that, child rearing and our definition of discipline and even love is culturally constructed. Having said that, my heart goes out to those who are too young and voiceless to defend themselves or simply be heard. On the other hand, I'm empathetic too to all those who have to bring up children. What a charge that is, and how vulnerable we are too as parents... the emotional burden involved. I've appreciated your raising the issue and presenting it in a most sensitive way.

jen revved said...

Your diction creates an image of god-like parent, so true to the perspective of the child--- brilliant. xxxj

Ruth said...

Thanks, Pat. I think the main reason we don't avoid the mistakes of the past in those big issues: $$$$$$$$$

Ruth said...

Ann, thanks so much for your close engagement with my poem. It does feel vulnerable at that last line, doesn't it?

Ruth said...

Boots, I remember that episode well, even as young as I was.

In his last years, I remember Dad raking leaves in a flannel shirt and khakis, both at home and at Hukilau, his red-sandy hair blowing up in the wind.

Ruth said...

Oliag, you surprise me a little, that you were defiant. I wanted to rebel, but I had no will. Bonnie wrote yesterday about boldly going after forbidden fruit. That was utterly foreign to my thinking growing up. I imagine I was saved some regret, but still I wanted it secretly. These days, I see myself busting out of other kinds of confinements.

Ruth said...

Dutchbaby, I am seeing the power of corporal punishment in the responses here. My memories of it were not hard for me as I wrote this poem, which was metaphorical about the Past, and how we have not learned from horrible mistakes as well as even worse consequences. Our past may annihilate us, though the planet will live on.

Thank you for your tender comment.

Ruth said...

George, thank you for reading and listening to the recording. I read your comment with shock, that you were whipped in school all the way until senior year. It makes me so sad. I wonder if it worked any good in you. It's hard to imagine that it could, but such things shape us somehow.

I think of life as a spiral. I keep getting the same few messages over and over. Sometimes I note the message only after many encounters, even painful ones!

Ruth said...

Nelson, oh yeah, the story of Eli. I forgot about that. That's what made them do it, and makes some in this country try to control gays and other "sinners" — so that God doesn't destroy this ole country of ours in His wrath.

Ruth said...

Rosaria, thank you for your comment, which reminded me of Sylvia Plath's poem "Daddy", one of my favorite poems ever, and which I think may have been quietly menacing in the background when I wrote this one. Hers is a terrible rant against an imagined father, and all men, I suppose.

Ruth said...

Arti, your excellent comment makes me wonder at our dullness, our slowness to learn. We are such intelligent beings in many ways! Yet humanly, sociologically, we are real dolts if you look at the bigger swath. I watch my daughter now, who hopes to have children one day, and she is studying and exploring everything she can get her hands on to learn how to be a good mother. In some ways I think we'd be better parents if we waited until the 30s when we have learned more life lessons.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Jen. Parents need to understand their tremendous power. All of us do, really. I'm convinced that if a child feels loved, they will want to please their parents, and maybe that is the most important kind of discipline: Love.

shoreacres said...

I never was "paddled", precisely, although my mother had the balsa-wood lid of a Velveeta cheesebox that came in contact once or twice with a single "thwap!" that was more noise than pain.

On the other hand, the absence of physical punishment isn't enough. You say, "if a child feels love, they will want to please their parents". That's no doubt true, but for me it was just the opposite. I hoped upon hope that someday I might please my mother, especially, and I never did. Truth to tell, I still haven't. My sense of having failed time after time drove me away for many years.

Perhaps the truth is this: both those who punish physically and those who don't can fail to see the child before them.

Louise Gallagher said...

Your poem resonated a long while yesterday -- all the way over to my blog and writing -- thank you for that. I love being able to write through the past into the present to illuminate the beauty today, even through the pain of memories that will not lie still in the past until they are written out.

Thanks my friend!

Peter said...

What a wonderful way to write something so horryfing! ... and of course I can, not surprisingly, read your forgiveness for such behaviour in your comments! Well, hopefully things have slightly changed, at least somewhere.

erin said...

JEZUZ! RUTH! what did you just do? what the hell did you just do? ohmygod, i don't know where to look or what to do or think! you just did something here irreparable! what brilliance in these lines!

(shrieking!)

xo
erin

Susan said...

In metaphor as in real life, the belt is effective only on those whose personalities accept its authority. Some children will go their own way regardless of how many beatings they receive and how harsh the punishment. I'm glad you didn't receive very many...neither did I...I knew exactly how far to push the boundaries.

Emille said...

This poem is crystal clear in the details! Some of our past were "spankings", sigh -I hope I learned from them! Because they were too painful.

Before I forget, this is my new blog (You know me as Jeannette StG from Mysteries and Art Notes) - don't know yet, which blog I;m gonna keep:)

lc said...

it seems it always comes to this.
history and life and God and man
a forceful journey Ruth but it makes me long for the other side of the coin where where he smiles tenderly and says come here child, we all make mistakes, before extending those great arms in a loving embrace. Is that no longer within our hope?

Ruth said...

Linda, what you describe with your mother seems more profoundly grievous than getting paddled. I can't fathom wanting to keep a distance from a child who reaches out to me her mother. But parents come with wounds just as anyone does, and maybe most of the wounds start from their own parents. Who we are is so much a result of those tiniest selves and what we received.

Ruth said...

Louise, your story of a boy, and an angry father with you at thirteen did something good in me. Maybe thirteen is when young women are supposed to stand up to the powers that try to keep them fenced in. I rejoice that you kept standing up and finding your beautiful voice.

Ruth said...

Peter, I hope we are evolving. I do see a lot more awareness about this, and less corporal punishment, thankfully. Of course there is still too much violence, physical and verbal in the world. I hope peaceful consciousness will spread through gentle people like you.

Ruth said...

Erin, I don't know what it did to you, but I hope you're all right.

:|

xoxo

Ruth said...

Susie, you are very attentive to life and have learned the ways of people, as painful as they are. You were forced to start learning those lessons very young. You mother did such a wonderful job with you, and so did you, with the pieces that came your way.

Ruth said...

Emille, thank you for reading the poem. Sorry to conjure up bad memories, I hope something good comes from that. And thanks for letting me know about Artistique! I am delighted to follow your painterly impressions of what you see, like the bridge. Beautiful.

Ruth said...

lc, I long for the other side too, where arms are so wide that small failings are not perceived as big failures and disappointments. The biggest disappointment is when we allow these things to divide us. May you feel loving arms today.

Marcie said...

Such an evocative..powerful scene you've painted here. The tension is palpable. Excellent!

Jane Lancaster said...

Did your dad have tattooes? Wow this is powerful. Reminds me of dad's tattoo after losing Pam. It's hard to imagine your dad taking a belt to you of all people. So refined. We do the most bizarre things in this world due to the way we were trained. Your dad probably regretted it. I know my dad has regrets... as you say the past is so powerful. It is to me now it's all I've got left of my darling Pam.

Soul Dipper said...

Oh man, do I dare confess this? When I read this, the first line meant that our past is lived to prepare well for the future. As you wrote about your father, I envisioned a situation of an older man having to succumb to care-giving.

My father had such dignity issues that, even in his last decade, his caregiver was allowed to give him a sponge bath, but not any daughter!

My mind had entirely locked into the scenario of my father having to rely on one of us - awkward, shy and rushing daughters - for the care that would rob him of the last piece of dignity.

Your last line was that declaration.

I was not spanked. I was the youngest and the sight of the older kids getting spankings "scared me good" so my mom claimed.

So you wrote a poem that wrenched my heart, but for an entirely different reason.

OceanoAzul.Sonhos said...

A poem that takes us to the very sad stories. We must not forget that, unfortunately, in many places in the world similar scenes still pass. Although much has been made in relation to children's rights.
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