Poems by Ian C. Smith
See me, an old solitary cocooned at my desk between walls book-shelved with alphabetically aligned authors in my haven, a room sheltered in a garden canopied by trees like a haunted wood. Composing a letter to my adult daughter following her divorce I pause, stare out the window recalling my own pierced young heart crying, delete or insert words as if shaping a formal poem. Time seeping away, I take another clean sheet, begin again, frowning in uncertainty.
What if I had lived an alternative life, one without the chronic gothic memories whistling around my mind so late now? It could start with my fantasy parents’ belief in the value of art’s integrity, their understanding of love’s kindness, children’s jeopardy, and the sanctification of education in lieu of lucre’s rat trap. Mapped undergraduate days begin in my teens instead of my late thirties. I read poetry, crash in and out of love and lust socialising on campus eschewing student jobs. No gruelling night hours toiling on low pay to complete my yearned-for full-time education. When qualified I start serious work in my twenties, not at fourteen when I wore my jacket sleeves scrunched up to hide a worn out elbow. I enjoy lunches easily afforded at a redolent hip deli, desk left tidy at day’s end, my hands clean.
In this other life marriage to a woman who treasures books delights despite autumnal affairs because we take care to touch other with a You OK? ‘sorry’ a word that fails to daunt us. Our relationship has quality, stitched to last long-term. Her people, friends whose approval I value, love our crumbling inner-city street, its old elms. My vicissitudes, until older, few, I rarely convey hurt, bodily or otherwise. Enjoying quotidian hedonism, sadness never eclipses me, betrayal’s burns resulting from minor let-downs only. Friendship balances seclusion. Beauty is all, my ready smile an advertisement for orthodontists, wrong moves mostly trivial in this wistful life with no need to avoid stepping on the cracks of a broken world.
An obsessive-compulsive in thrall to numbers, I don’t count my disastrous mistakes, but other odd things including written words and lines claim me. Thirteen lines so far. Unlucky. I estimate the years since we were last in touch. Also thirteen. The ship of the past sounds its long bleak foghorn. From the opposite direction death steals towards us no matter which life we lived. I plunge ahead, edit dread concerning our circle of blood, manage to write that strange word ‘love’, shall go one better, post this awkward letter.
The Iron Past
I could cheer, or weep, at my father’s memorial service. When smoke billows from an electrical box outside attracting the fire brigade their confused attempts to locate the cause, like a silent movie, entertains those mourners advantaged by the view. On an oblique angle as usual, I watch these antics’ reflection in a window, minister and organist struggling on against comical competition. This kerfuffle outside evokes a swarm of shouts and jokes from my now entombed past when a face, a glistening goggled eye, lit up as moulders darted through streamers of smoke, swearing and sweating in the fierce glare of my father’s heat.
I had been away, in and out of trouble. On notice to live at home, work steadily, I got hired where he worked. My silly young heart high, I hoped this set-up might succeed, a liminal chance considering his contempt. Silhouetted, surrounded by foundry men casting giant shadows, every weekday he poured molten iron, flexed biceps shining, Vulcan transporting his thunderbolts from the furnace fury in his big vat then into the moulders’ long-handled pots, sparks shooting red and gold arcs before quickly dying. Now he has bequeathed what was left of that body to science.
My brother, a boy when he witnessed my fierce family strife, fears death and believes various conspiracy theories yet regards me as a doomsayer. He worked as a fireman once, and parking-meter attendant; installed telephones, was a driver, a car cleaner. Always compliant, he loved our father and views the past, those lost days that make my scars crawl, as a safe, suspended glow of goodness. His restored car, a tail-finned refugee from then, matches his attempted Elvis hairdo, mine so much earlier when my loud sideburns irritated our balding, now sanctified father. After the service, tea being poured from large pots, he leaves my former wife and her new friend, our also divorced sister, to angle towards me and my young pregnant second wife, his smile uneven, self-conscious walk familiar though we never socialise, to return my book, a boys’ adventure yarn hung on to for decades.
He complains about errors of chronology in the minister’s creative effort to make verbal sense of our father’s life, to transform a losing battle into a gospel. In parts, I detected our mother’s style of narration in the minister’s voice. That earnest man unknown to our father – and, I suspect, to my mother until after our father’s death – had squeezed his eyes shut talking about our father’s life recently ended so it sounded like the life of another, somebody else’s father. We sang the Twenty-third Psalm, the only one I remember, and other hymns, stretching the service, the smoke show over.
Memory uncertain, I believe I never finished that book though since my late education I read avidly. In fountain pen ink it avers that it was presented for the Sunday school attendance our mother, a non-churchgoer herself, insisted on. Old binding barely holds it together. Remembering the church, and parables, The Prodigal Son, I turn pages like an expert in bomb disposal to find a torn scrap with scores in my boyish hand of a game I invented, shared with my brother. As book owners did, he wrote his name inside the cover after I left for good. I should hug him, be a better big brother, but I am useless at kind gestures. All our fugitive years settle on his face like an Old Testament plague as he watches me read our address ending with The World.