American Life in Poetry
by Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2004-2006
One in a series of elegies by New York City poet Catherine Barnett, this poem describes the first gathering after death has shaken a family to its core. The father tries to help his grown daughter forget for a moment that, a year earlier, her own two daughters were killed, that she is now alone. He’s heartsick, realizing that drinking can only momentarily ease her pain, a pain and love that takes hold of the entire family. The children who join her in the field are silent guardians.
My father scolded us all for refusing his liquor.
He kept buying tequila, and steak for the grill, until finally we joined him, making margaritas, cutting the fat off the bone.
When he saw how we drank, my sister
shredding the black labels into her glass while his remaining grandchildren dragged their thin bunk bed mattresses
first out to the lawn to play
then farther up the field to sleep next to her, I think it was then he changed, something in him died. He’s gentler now,
quiet, losing weight though every night he eats the same ice cream he always ate only now he’s not drinking, he doesn’t fall asleep with the spoon in his hand,
he waits for my mother to come lie down with him.
Reprinted from Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced, Alice James Books, 2004, by permission of the author. Copyright 2004 by Catherine Barnett. This weekly column is supported by the Poetry Foundation, the Library of Congress and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org