MY DEAD FATHER REMEMBERS MY BIRTHDAY by Lesley Wheeler
Dream-phone rang and I thought: that’s exactly
his voice. I haven’t forgotten. Then: but I could
forget, because he’s dead. Hi, sorry it’s been so long,
but I was sick and the doctors messed everything up.
He made that shrug-noise, dismissive but pained,
meaning he’s lying or leaving something out.
It’s snowing here, and then a click, click, over the line,
and a neutral woman’s voice, slightly officious:
This recording was intercepted. If you wish to replay
this message, dial this number now, and she recited
a blizzard of digits while I flailed
for a pen then found myself tangled in blankets.
The window a bruise beginning to fade.
Here mist wreaths the trunks. In a few months
snow will crisp the grass, insulate and numb the oaks
with feathery layers that would soak and freeze
a human being. When and where is he? Snug,
maybe, watching weather through double panes.
Or wanting to be. I heard a bead of doubt
suspended in his voice, a cool guess he’d missed
something, before my operator intervened,
reason declaring: This is memory. The line is cut.
I’ve thought a lot about voice in modernist elegies. Voice may have a special place in those early twentieth-century poems because while technologies for preserving images had become commonplace, technologies for preserving sound were less accessible to ordinary people. When you lost someone, you probably had photographs, but that timbre was just gone from the world. When I woke up from this dream in September 2012, besides feeling spooked, I was surprised. I’m almost in the same position as, say, Edna St. Vincent Millay: maybe someone somewhere has a recording of my father’s scratchy Brooklyn accent, but I don’t. Since I thought of this belatedly, poetry is the only recording device I have. I talked to him in a series of dreams that year, but in each one he was angrier than the last, until he finally turned his back on me and fell silent.
Lesley Wheeler’s poetry collections include The Receptionist and Other Tales, a Tiptree Award Honor Book; Heterotopia, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize; and Heathen. She blogs about poetry at http://lesleywheeler.org/ and is the Henry S. Fox Professor of English at Washington and Lee University.