It seemed like the perfect Father's Day gift.
Browsing through the office book bin, I picked it up -- "More Light: Father & Daughter Poems." My father had been reading my poems of late. Said he liked them. That surprised me. What was there to like? What about them did he like? Which ones held his interest?
The poem about my husband flying, spinning into the great white, falling into a gaping blue sea? Or the one about the adulterous wife, an otherwise perfect woman? The poem about my girlhood best friend, strung out on cocaine, dancing under a madonna's stony eyes?
My father is a man who keeps a stack of National Geographics on his night table, reaches for the Travel section of the New York Times on Sunday and reads the daily Long Island tabloid at night. So I appreciated his interest in my poetic musings.
When I saw the anthology of father-daughter poems, I paid my dollar and planned to send off the book by week's end. That evening I browsed through the collection.
In the first few poems, I read of punishing fathers, dads who ignored their daughters, fathers who invaded their daughters' peaceful sleep. There were murderous daughters, women obsessed with their fathers, daughters mourning the papas they too late loved.
Where were the poems about loving, healthy relationships, those that evoke the sinew and bone of this filial pairing, the inexorable pull between him and her?
I opened to Jessica Hagedorn's "Song for My Father":
you greet me
and i see
it is you
you all the time
pulling me back
towards this space
What would my father think of this daughter's "obsession to return"?
Raymond Carver's "My Daughter and Apple Pie" looked hopeful. I recalled my grandmother's apple pie, the pie my father's mother would make all sugary and cinnamony. The woman for whom I am named. Yes, this one invited me in. Steam is rising in the Carver kitchen, the aroma of sugar and spice wafting through the air, but the poet's daughter is wearing "these dark glasses in the kitchen at ten o'clock in the morning." And the father says, "I fork the pie in / and tell myself to stay out of it. / She says she loves him. No way / could it be worse."
I was reminded of the night I told my father I was getting married. I asked him what he thought of the fact that my husband was of a different faith. "What do I think?" he replied. "It's not what I think. It's what you think. You have to live with him."
I continued to thumb through the pages of this small volume. In Mary Oliver's "A Visitor," a father and daughter reconcile in the ghost hours after dark: "And I greeted him and asked him / into the house, / and lit the lamp, / and looked into his blank eyes/in which at last / I saw what a child must love, / I saw what love might have done/had we loved in time."
Maybe I should consider buying another gift. A book about golf, a new Pavarotti recording? The more I read, the more I worried. This perfect gift had become a harbinger of words never spoken, my words. Would my father consider this book a message, a letter I could never write, feelings this good girl had forever locked away and told her woman self not to indulge?
And while none of the poems spoke for me, it seemed as though the very act of sending the book would speak volumes. I read on and took comfort in Gregory Orr's poem of a father watching his gymnast daughter: "Her bright body / in the doorway -- white, lit candle; / our thralled, animal eyes / flashing back from the dark beyond." I wondered how my father saw me.
In one of my own poems, I recount a scene from a home movie, an image running on the screen behind my eyes. The father, tall, with jet-black hair, is holding his 3-year-old daughter in his arms, turning her toward the camera. She keeps turning her head, away.
This is the poem I can never share with my father. It is about fear, about a daughter's attempt to understand the origin of the fear that moves through her life. I am not afraid of my father. But his views and attitudes have contributed to my fear in ways he would never imagine.
I have read my poem to rooms full of strangers, not one who JTC knows both father and daughter. It is an address to a man who shaped all the men who came after, a girl's elusive dark wishes. It maps a long-distance relationship using words I have often wanted to take back, erase from the page. But I haven't.
Instead, I offered my own private disclaimer for this not-so-flattering portrait. I have offered a secret prayer of forgiveness and silently apologized for this poetic betrayal.
I realized last Father's Day, I was looking for a way to say who we are -- my dad and I -- without really knowing. The book of poems seemed a ready answer, articulated in black and white, punctuated by grace and power.
But I have neither grace nor power when I deal with my father. I am the child in my father's arms, the girl awaiting his approval, the daughter struggling to be her own woman.
Recently, upon learning of the death of a friend's father, I called my dad. I wanted to tell him what I never tell him. He came to the phone and immediately asked, "What's wrong?" As I tearfully explained why I called, that I wanted to tell him that I never say how I feel, that I never tell him that I l---, he cut me off.
He told me there was no need to say a word, though he appreciated the thought greatly.
"We know how we feel," he said reassuringly.
The book of poems remains on my bookshelf.
ANN LOLORDO is national correspondent for The Sun and a poet.