It's true. I used to try to pretend it wasn't by using "artist" as a euphemism, but I lacked his special talent for bs and never fully believed myself. Besides, there were always the stories.
"It was midwinter in Calgary," she said. "He had been up all night in the basement, his studio, home to a ripe mixture of paint fumes and LSD. You were about a year old. He was at the table with a book - the book- when I came into the kitchen that morning. His eyes shone like only eyes that see beyond the here-and-now can. 'There's so much light,' words slipped out of quivering lips, seeming to give him energy. He rose. 'SO MUCH LIGHT!' Began circling erratically. I tried to calm him down, asked him to tell me about the light, what it felt like, engage him somehow. It was like he was looking past me, or maybe through. On his nearly six and a half foot frame hung a fringed, leather vest and a rumpled, paint-smeared pair of jeans. A woven headband held back his hair, a vestige of the night's painting, no doubt. When he walked out the door, he was still bare foot. Eyes of fire met my own. "It will burn us," he said. "The light must be released into the world." Without another word, he walked away. I could see steam rise from where naked sole met snow covered ground. Bible still in hand, he walked, back straight, and I watched until he disappeared into the blinding horizon of the drifts."
this image of Jack Kerouac
meets Mickey Knox:
some crazy cruel genius
who can treat a little girls’ heart like a wishbone,
snapping it with the cyclical regularity of a seasonal turkey.
If it had been some more glamorous kind of truth, that might have been okay. And crazy artist? Van Gogh to James Dean, now that's glamour, right? But it's a problem of measurement, of distance. Father is only one step removed from self, so that one little sentence can make me instantly suspect. Even to myself.
"He used to get migraines so bad he would black out, and I'd have to take him to the hospital," she said, and so the hammer behind my own skull became so much more insidious. "I'd wake up and he wouldn't even be breathing. He had asthma too, like you." Like you. I would imagine the pain behind my eyes like some kind of Rosemary's Baby, some kind of demon growing inside me, waiting to break out or take control. Waiting to make me... like him. "It was all the silk screening chemicals, I'm sure. He said he never used to get the headaches before that. And he was manic too, way up or way down, and it was only when he got like that..." You mean, like me? I swore I'd never take another internet quiz after the one personality result that pegged me as prone to manic highs and lows, said I had low emotional stability, whatever that's supposed to mean. Like him? Like him.
Papa, we shall never have peace.
No, nor will we weather the storm.
I don't talk about him, period. Except when I do, which is by accident, and followed by regret. I told one of my English 12 classes about him once in a desperate attempt to make the point that poets don't necessarily think like the rest of us, that they sometimes emphasize and magnify the emotional elements of life in order to paint them in words for the rest of us (and/or themselves). They were very careful after that to keep at least one eye on me. They wanted to know, how did I know he was crazy? After class, one student asked me, had I been able to find help? Was it genetic like heart disease?
I was sitting in class: Third-year Romantic Literature. The topic: the life and times of William Blake. As panels of The Book of Urizen swam in front of my eyes, all I could hear were parallel secrets. "He believed that god spoke to him, that that was the source of his inspiration," our professor explained. In my head, your voice: "he believed that the spirit of William Blake came to him, spoke to him..." Here they were, two poets, two print makers, two madmen allergic to normalcy, but gifted. Gifted. Don't say it - crazy.
you could have been the gentle giant –
He, hell he can lie to himself. He can convince himself that the most far fetched, truth-defying, steaming pile of utter fiction ever created is god's own truth. I know this because of the stories he told me. The lies he told me. The shit I could never officially hate him for because he believed it was true. He is crazy. Not only was it true, it was his pardon.
Without the cold calculus of the heart, I can still count up the number of times, divide by divisions of time, that elusive fourth wall, and say about once every six and a half years, from the age of two on. That's how often we came face to face, just enough to keep me on the hook, reeled in and tossed out, reeled in and tossed out, and each encounter followed the same basic pattern. "He has great genes, you inherited those at least." You'd tell me over the years, always, for some unfathomable reason, ready to excuse him. And he did, and there began the pattern. A little girl and a big, strong, father. He seemed like a tree, some force of nature, something with roots and everything else I wanted and never had. And me, wanting, against my own will, every cell in my body crying for belonging, wanting this to be true. I remember one time when I was about 14. We went out for dinner, just him and me, no sisters, no wife. The only time. I saw myself in his eyes, in his hands. Later, we sat on the swing on his back porch while the last rays of sunlight slunk behind shadowed hills. He told me, as proof of his devotion, that hey, at least he'd always paid child support, so he could know I was well looked after. At that moment, I wanted to run, strange city be damned. His lies make me feel like a fly in a web, about to be sucked dry. Just days before, at home, I'd been helping my mother fill out court orders to seek support after 13 years of receiving nothing.
& it turns out little girls are more like puppies
because they will come back & back & back
to seek the hand that hurts them.
I never once failed to be hopeful,
which allowed you to never fail to find
some form or avenue for betrayal.
The lies he told me were flat-out plausible when compared to the elaborate tales he spun into his life story, but those I couldn't disprove. What's worse, I couldn't escape the mystery, the allure. The larger-than-lifeness brought on by imagining him juxtaposed against the background of drugs and damming the man. I swore I'd write his biography once he died, my own big-fish weaving of tales from the last generation, but I only swear it under my breath now because I'm so repulsed by the idea of any sort of immersion into his world.
"He told me he did drugs to make himself dumb enough to talk to regular people." I was young when I first heard it, but I never doubted its currency after adding up the decades of hallucinogens, the belladonna greenhouse, and the arrogance. There should almost be another word, one that specifically means, believes one's destiny to have been shaped by god himself while having delusions of omniscience. It was a sunny afternoon in 1989 when he cheerfully proclaimed to me, "Do you know I'm one of the 10 smartest people alive in North America? I did a test at the University last week." He was so much Apollo with the sun on his strong back, his long hair, I just nodded. When I took an early interest in poetry, he told me about living with bill bissett in Vancouver. They started the city's first independent poetry press. They lived in a house at the bottom of Davie Street, funding the whole operation off their kitchen table, from which they sold handfuls of marijuana and LSD to local kids for a dollar each. Strands of truth - the press, bill, Davie - how can I know, then? And these tales, they add up. The claim that he'd been "told" by higher powers that only after death would he be recognized as a true 20th century master. Art forging in Italy that led to accidental cocaine smuggling. Manufacturing acid off the coat of Spain until a boating accident resulted in infiltration of the town's water supply. Always thinking of and loving me, even in long years of silence. I never found the right tool to tease fact from fiction.
Your fictions were always more fascinating
but did nothing
to assuage a young girl’s fear of abandonment
& my life became a film reel displaying that theme
rolling over rolling over
to start with the same separation.
The love of my life has met him twice - far too much for comfort. The same number of times I've seen him in the ten and a half years we've been together. Now, he says he wants to be forgiven, and it's the richest irony I've yet been seeped in. Year after year, age after age, I forgave him. I forgave but always needed to forgive again. Forgave, and forgave again. There was always the next time, next gap, next lie, next heartbreak, next emptiness. I know now he's getting old. "He wants to be at peace," you tell me, "maybe he's grown up too." As if that is something one should ever be stuck waiting for one's father to do, and it sticks in my throat, and I say I won't do it anymore. If it wasn't good enough for me to forgive him for my sake, how can I do so for his?
"You should have seen how much he loved you girls," you say, "and during the important years too, the formative ones." I feel like I begin to foam four letter words. F**k me, I thought they were all important years, all those years I tried to survive the yo yo effect. When we visited, it would rain love and sunshine and gifts and rainbows painted by leprechauns on the backs of infinite pink unicorns, every time was Christmas. Every time every five to seven years. And then would come the silence. I would try to penetrate it, send letters, pictures, origami cranes, mementos to remind him of conversations we'd had, plans we'd made, into the silent abyss. I poured myself down a hole with no bottom, over and over. I never filled it up. No matter how long I live, I'll always remember the one year he reached across the Rockies with a birthday present. It was the only chink in his "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" armour, that one year. The present: a dress, the more expensive kind, high quality cotton. Sophisticated, for a seven year old, well cut from a rich burgundy. I loved it, though it was too old for me, I'm sure. And a silk scarf, to match, that I still have today, some twenty years later. The only thing is, the memory will always be tainted. Presence makes absence more acute. The fact that he remembered me once went on to underscore all the coming years when he didn't. My sister was smart, never headed down the abyss, and today, the two of them can talk. I'm another story altogether.
it turns out I’m more like sandstone than granite:
I will crumble if not handled gently
& I can only hide the evidence of erosion for so long.
It IS true. Other sane adults who knew him attest to at least two bouts in various institutions, and there may be more. I know of suicide attempts and cookware thrown at not just one wife, but two. I know how he doesn't have a bank account in his own name. How he brags that his only responsibility is making tea, as if to pretend there's nothing to hide. Maybe I should be sad. He's old now, and the years have exacted a heavy toll. The only problem is, they've done the same to me.
Papa, we shall never have peace.
No, nor will we weather the storm.