I suppose my father’s life while he was still in Italy must remain mysterious and anecdotal to me, a censored Harlequinade, the juicier parts left out. And I want the juice so that I can conjure him up again in the flesh, for what I don’t know about him continues to haunt me. I want him human, not saintly, for I do not understand saintliness and never could, which is why I want to understand him. It is, I think, the central fact of my life that I wanted to be like him and could never understand how he got to be the way he was when I knew him. I could never believe, try as I might, as deeply as he believed, and finally I could not believe at all. The key is buried in his grave, beneath his epitaph:
The good man is gone, pray
His eyes see now what his heart saw.
— From a gravestone in Meriden, Connecticut.
We heard him in Sunday school
And in the pulpit say,
"Heed ye the Golden Rule."
The good man is gone. Pray.
And if you cannot, try
Not to fracture His law.
Just possibly, on High,
His eyes see now what his heart saw.
If there is a note of uncertainty in the words of the epitaph, it is mine, not his.
I seem to have been trying to capture my father in words for most of my life, and perhaps he is going to elude me again this time. I remember doing a paper in the 8th or 9th grade while I was enrolled in Suffield Academy, a private, Baptist-affiliated school in Connecticut, where my father insisted I be sent to get the best education possible, as he saw it, and which he could not afford. The paper was titled something like, “My Father: My Ideal.” But the piece that gets closest, I think, was an early poem titled “Luigi.” It spoke of the deep humanity of his personality, of his determination to live the life a true Christian is supposed to live, not merely pay lip-service to:
My mother called me Lewis,
but I was Son to the old man
who brought the sunny Host of Sicily
ashore with him at Ellis Isle.
"Child, Christ died with a gentle smile
and a human cry on the Fascist cross,"
he'd say as we started off to church
where he wept in the pulpit as he preached,
but grinned as he shook the parish hand.
If I were the son he thought I was
I'd sing the hymn the satyrs sang
in the cottager's wood on Aetna's slopes
and taste the majesty of The Word
in the rich red juice of our common grail.
We'd drink, despite the matron frown
that cracked like lightning in a Yankee sky
where Calvin sat in the foreman's bench
marking an X by a certain name.
I don’t think my father ever realized — perhaps I didn’t, either, for a long time — that one important reason I couldn’t follow in the path he blazed was that he provided a model for me, and for nearly everyone else who knew him, that most people could not live up to. I saw the difference between what a Christian was supposed to be, and what most in fact were. I early understood the nature of hypocrisy. Rather than be a hypocrite myself, I eschewed conventional piety. I could never hope to be as good as my father, so I wouldn’t try.
In the last years, when it was plain that he himself was fading with his eyes—that is, fading in his family’s eyes, not in his own I wrote
"I am drowning in the wind,"
the blind man said, opening
his sack of prayers. Out flew a silver thorn
to prick the day he could not see.
"Time past is a pool of silt and sighs,"
the blind man said as he trod mire.
"The wind is mud I cannot breathe.
Now is a vortex: in its eye,
filled with omens, a vacuum
sucks and forges at the sky.
“I shall be drowning then as now,"
the blind man said, "deaf to the daylight,
numb to thorns. Wings shall fail me and the wind
blow from darkness into dark.
Faith to sustain me, bag and bone,
as I lie drowning in the wind,"
the blind man said.
The moon blew dimly on the night.
Owls flew hugely in and out
where the fabric was rent and losing light.
But these are words he would never have said; they are my words again. At his blindest he was able to see the light that I could not.
My father’s story had come to haunt me by the time he was living in the house he and my mother had bought on South Avenue after years of moving from one neighborhood to another. But the house in which I remember him best was the parsonage. We moved into it when I was in junior high school, before I went to Suffield. After years of planning and saving, the church had bought it, and for a while we had some feeling of physical location a point of reference and a neighborhood.
One of the features of the house was the room I called the “sunporch,” but it was just a bright room facing the driveway and the multiple garages the church rented to neighbors who didn’t have a car. My father had divided the room with some bookcases, and he had his study behind them. In the rest of the room, about two-thirds of the space, I had aquariums lining the outer walls. I would sit looking at my tropical fish for hours while my father labored over his sermons beside me, or read his books.
For years after I had left the family for the Navy, marriage, college, I would dream of that room, the black angelfish swimming in the air. I have tried many times to write of it, in a story, and again in a poem titled “The Recurring Dream”:
Listen to Lewis Turco read his poem The Recurring Dream
THE RECURRING DREAM
I seek my father — that minister
of the deep — among the furniture
of my childhood. I step out of waking
into this room and know
that time has passed. The windows are webbed
and moonstreaked. A lamp with a glass shade,
green and saffron, burns
on a brass stem. The bookcases hold sermons
and silence. My aquaria
stand among tumbled
tomes and testaments. The dust rises
into the amber darkness.
I disturb a desert of hours,
search for the fish that glide
in musty waters — blue scales
glint under my glance,
their eyes are corals budding
among rusty blades of sea grass
and swordplants. I remove the glass lids
and dip my hand into the water —
it is what I have feared:
shadow of a shadow, dim air
flowing from corner to corner.
The fish rise along the curtains
to swim about me in the air,
their black fins wavering.
I dig in the gravel stranded
among the shelving,
the decaying books. I dig,
and here, in the root
of the largest plant, blooming
from a socket of bone, I find my father
where he has scuttled,
at last to be brought back, smiling.
Once I’d written the poem, I stopped having that particular dream, for I had exorcised it in the act of writing. But then I had others, and I wrote to exorcise them, too. Writing poetry is meditation, a true therapy, which I think my father would understand.
first appeared in Approach, 54,
Winter 1965 and was collected in Pocoangelini: A Fantography and other Poems by Lewis Turco, 1971; “Father Figure” appeared
originally under the title “For My Father” in The Weed Garden by Lewis Turco, 1973; "The Recurring
Dream," in The Hudson Review,
xxx:3, Autumn 1977 and in The Shifting Web: New and Selected Poems by Lewis Turco, 1989; all were collected in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco
1959-2007, www.StarCloudPress.com, 2007, ISBN 978-1-932842-19-5,
jacketed cloth, $49.95; ISBN 978-1-932842-20-3, trade paperback, $32.95, 640
pages. ORDER FROM AMAZON.COM.
"Luigi," first appeared in Approach, 54, Winter 1965 and was collected in Pocoangelini: A Fantography and other Poems by Lewis Turco, 1971; “Father Figure” appeared originally under the title “For My Father” in The Weed Garden by Lewis Turco, 1973; "The Recurring Dream," in The Hudson Review, xxx:3, Autumn 1977 and in The Shifting Web: New and Selected Poems by Lewis Turco, 1989; all were collected in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, www.StarCloudPress.com, 2007, ISBN 978-1-932842-19-5, jacketed cloth, $49.95; ISBN 978-1-932842-20-3, trade paperback, $32.95, 640 pages. ORDER FROM AMAZON.COM.
"Luigi," first appeared in Approach, 54, Winter 1965; “Father Figure,” in The Weed Garden, Orangeburg: Peaceweed Press, 1973; "The Recurring Dream," in The Hudson Review, xxx:3, Autumn 1977; all were collected in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, www.StarCloudPress.com.