Never published, this poem continues to nettle, to agitate in my craw. What better day to dig it out and air it in the longest light?
Chinese Bell for the Summer Solstice
Long ago, when he was maybe 50,
my father took a solitary walkabout
by Greyhound bus, across the West,
across the Golden Gate, chasing something
he had missed. From a fish shack
on the wharf he called and said, “It’s still light here.”
It shocked me: time zones something startling, new.
(On the only part of turning earth I knew
Ohio was already dark as it would often be,
Perhaps it was that Midwest night
that drove my dad to Chinatown.)
Outside the screen door, a hundred fireflies sparked,
I barely noticed, not yet knowing how
Exotic they were.
. I wanted more
Of California, hugged the black receiver
and heard from far away a gull.
I tried to see my father there, taking in the cobalt sea,
swooping birds, California sun like heaven
in his eyes. Then: “There’s a prison out there,” he
said., “and sharks would eat you if you tried to get away.”
he gave my mother
turquoise rings and in a narrow box
wrapped in newsprint with Shanghai script,
a simple cone of solid brass from Chinatown.
For years she rang it, calling guests to dinner,
They signed her leather guest book by the dozens,
An inventory of the Mister and Missus
Christians of Ohio, sipping homemade
Tomato juice from heirloom crystal on paper
Doilies and complimenting my mother’s rhubarb pie.
When we closed up their house,
surprised by melancholy memory
of my father’s midlife pilgrimage,
my mother’s hostess rites when he got back, I grabbed
the bell from a black bag bulging and
all ready for Goodwill.
I wonder if she found him changed,
At peace with her and finally satisfied.
Now every summer solstice,
my days in need of ritual
I wait for darkness with
the bell from Chinatown.
I don’t know how the bell got
Mixed up with it,
Proof my father lit out
Against his rampant heart?
Silvery clang against sorrow?
I love the give and take of light
at this, my native latitude,
a daily shifting truth the earth still owns.
I claim this bell, its perfect “ting,” a token
of my father’s restlessness but
also love: he went somewhere
for happiness, and he came home.
I seem to see things best at fading light,
when sharp black birds at bright 9:30
soar out of elms to shifting blue.
At 10 the cherry tree demolished
by a winter storm bares what I hadn’t seen:
dead branches bent like crones on what will be
the tree’s last sun before the chainsaw.
I’m glad I caught its last two blooms:
the one before the gale, when flowers
rushed our weathered fence, then mournful pinks
of this year’s brave but meager encore.
It’s not quite dark but tough times anyway,
Today, in fact, in floods of Iowa, a farmer
had to kill his pigs. A few survivors
screamed when roped and lifted
from the bilge. They’re all that’s left , he said,
but who would want to eat them now,
soaked with diesel fuel and shit?
What misery – saved, then euthanized
by what was in the flood. This solstice poem ,
at first a song to days, now seems to want
a hymn to night: why do those doomed and salvaged
pigs want in this poem, a poem that’s struggling
with the light?
At 10:15 three fireflies flash the purple yard
And I recall that childhood night
my father’s voice a promise
from the glamour of the bay
but I wonder if when summer dawns
less light may come as a relief.
I ring my father’s bell -- And now
begin invoking myths
for those who followed light