My Father at Fifty
Your mysterious economy blows the buttons
off your shirts, and permits overdrafts
at several foreign banks. – It must cost the earth.
Once I thought of you virtually as a savage,
atavistic, well-aligned, without frailties.
A man of strong appetites, governed by instinct.
You never cleaned your teeth, but they were perfect anyway
from a diet of undercooked meat; you gnawed the bones;
anything sweet you considered frivolous.
Your marvellous, single-minded regime, kept up
for years, of getting up at four or five,
and writing a few pages ‘on an empty stomach’,
before exposing yourself to words – whether
on the radio, in books or newspapers,
or just your own from the day before ...
Things are different now. Your male discriminations
– meat and work – have lost their edge.
Your teeth are filled, an omnivorous sign.
Wherever you are, there is a barrage of noise:
your difficult breathing, or the blaring radio –
as necessary and unconscious as breathing.
You have gone to seed like Third World dictators,
fat heads of state suffering horribly
from Western diseases whose name is Legion ...
Your concentration is gone: every twenty minutes,
you go to the kitchen, or you call your wife
over some trifle. Bad-tempered and irritable,
you sedate yourself to save the energy
of an outburst. Your kidneys hurt, there is even
a red band of eczema starring your chest.
Your beard – the friend of the writer who doesn’t smoke –
is shot with white ... A Christmas card arrives
to ask why you don’t have any grandchildren.
By now, it is almost my father’s arm,
a man’s arm, that lifts the cigarettes to my mouth
numbed by smoke and raw onions and chocolate milk.
I need calm, something to tranquillise me
after the sudden storm between us that left me shaking,
and with sticky palms ... It only happens here,
where I blurt in German, dissatisfied and unproficient
amid the material exhilaration of abstract furniture,
a new car on the Autobahn, electric pylons walking
through the erasures in the Bayrischer Wald ...
Once before, I left some lines of Joseph Roth
bleeding on your desk: ‘I had no father – that is,
I never knew my father – but Zipper had one.
That made my friend seem quite privileged,
as though he had a parrot or a St Bernard.’
All at once, my nature as a child hits me.
I was a moving particle, like the skidding lights
in a film-still. Provoking and of no account,
I kept up a constant rearguard action, jibing,
commenting, sermonising. ‘Why did God give me a voice,’
I asked, ‘if you always keep the radio on?’
It was a fugitive childhood. Aged four, I was chased
round and round the table by my father, who fell
and broke his arm he was going to raise against me.
My sheets rode from left to right. Soon I was lying
on the bare security mattress, my arm round a white wraith.
... I remembered the film I saw. Wizened and high-cheeked,
the tartar face of Adenauer, first post-war Chancellor, elected
with the margin of one vote, his own. That was the ‘Adenauer era’ ...
He warned against Communism ‘of the Asiatic type’,
and said that a free Europe should extend as far as the Urals.
Improbably, and by subterfuge, he re-armed Germany
(even Strauss wanted ‘the arm that held a weapon’ to ‘drop off’),
and, but for the opposition of the Göttingen professors
and massive popular demonstrations, it would have gone nuclear
as well ... In my dream, the peaceable objects in the larder
flew off, changed their function, their identity,
even, when it was safe to do so, their labels.