A confession: although MH’s ‘father-poems’ have been widely admired, they don’t tend to be my favourites from his work. They are good poems, mind you, but I usually prefer his other stuff.
I didn’t find the father-poems from Acrimony (1986) to be quite as acerbic as I’d been led to expect (that's not necessarily a criticism!). In the section from Approximately Nowhere (1999), there are several more, and these are supposed to be more forgiving, more positive about his father.
It starts with For Gert Hofmann, died 1 July 1993. The poem describes the family house – both the changes and what stays the same, the marks he has left on the world. The blinds are at half-mast, the place where his father sat is empty, the clock ticks on, the wastepaper basket is abraded by “so much balled-up paper/ nosebleeds and peach-pits,” the books are the same as ever, the berries are already reddening.
There are also images of separation – water separates the lettuce from its greenflies, there are two chairs – one for the father and one for the mother, an African mask hanging on a wall is supposed to keep away evil spirits.
I thought this was a good poem – moving, capturing a moment of separation. It doesn’t get maudlin – the father is presented as:
for once not at his post, not in the penumbra
frowning up from his manuscript at he world.
But even this is a scene of loss, even the frowning is missed.
The ending is intriguing. The berries are reddening, a symbol of aging, approaching ripeness, but MH then adds that “the inscrutable blackbirds will scorn them months more.” It’s an image connected with mortality. The berries appear ready but won’t be taken for another while. Perhaps MH is feeling that sense of mortality in himself.