Father’s Day Poems


My Father at Work

My father was a union man.

For most of his last twenty-seven years,

he worked in a munitions plant.

High on the long brick building

there were yellow letters–

A M M U N I T I O N.

The plant was located

on a cliff above the river.

On the street side,

it was surrounded by a high fence

topped with rolled barbed wire.

At the gate were guards,

crewcutted and big shouldered,

whose waists hung heavily

with very polished holsters.

One had a small tattoo

of an exotic dancer

behind his right ear.


When my father died,

he was sixth in seniority.

When he was younger,

he was for a long while

Chief Steward of the Local.

During the war in Nam,

when three full shifts

were working, our phone

used to ring sometimes

at four or five in the morning.

Mostly it was some guy

sent home for being drunk

who had sobered up enough

to want something done about it.

Like my father, they were all vets—

of the Second War, Korea,

or, increasingly, of Nam itself.


My mother refused to say

that my father was not at home.


I was inside the plant several times.

Until his eyes wore out from the heat,

my father moved the shells

through a half-dozen to a dozen furnaces

set at different temperatures.

He would lift them out with tongs,

drop them onto a wire rack,

and roll them to the next furnace.

His forearms were like Popeye’s.

I would look over the pipe railing

down the three stories

to the flatcars shunting,

full of the silver shell casings,

like sardines when the lid

had been removed from the tin.

The men who worked with my father

were loud and very friendly with me

in a somehow dangerous way.


Seven years before he died,

my father had the first stroke.

When he went back to work,

they put him painting signs

with a stencil and a sprayer.

We would sit on the back porch

between work and supper,

and he would explain the importance

of keeping the stencil straight

and flush to the metal housing.


A week after my father died,

I went to clean out his locker.

Inside, I found a new hammer,

four screwdrivers with yellow

and black plastic handles,

a map of New Jersey,

and a dozen and a half baseball caps

stacked one inside the other,

all rock-hard with paint.


War Stories

When I was a boy,

two dark bookcases stood in the hallway

that ran through the center of the house.

At the end of one of the bottom shelves

was a history of the 5th Marine Division.

My father’s name appeared nowhere

but among the long roster in the back.

I used to sit for hours under a small lamp

and search the ship and battle photos

for a face that might be his.


All my father ever said was,

“I never killed anyone. I drove a truck.”


It was not until years after his death

that an uncle mentioned in passing

that on Iwo Jima, my father

had driven ammunition

from the black beach to the fighting.

He had been in the second wave

on the first day, and he had sat

on top of death

for the whole six weeks

without getting a scratch.


My uncle said, “When it was finally over,

I think that your dad decided

that nothing

was ever

going to bother him again.”


Of course, he could not have seen

me coming.


Something Like Nostalgia

After the war,

my father tended bar

at Jimmy’s, a neighborhood

beer joint in his small hometown.

It catered to miners

and still opened at five in the morning

and closed at nine at night.

My mother had a photograph

of the two of them sitting at the bar.

She had cut off the bottom of the photo

so that they were visible only

from the waist up.

She explained to my wife that,

from “drinking the profits,”

my father had gotten too fat

to be sitting on a barstool.


When we were almost

of legal age, my brother

and I drove to Jimmy’s.

The barroom was as bright

as a kitchen, and the barmaid

looked like a housewife.

There were three old couples

at the tables, and a guy

in a Maytag uniform

sitting on a stool

at the far end of the bar.

The barmaid refused to serve us

more than two beers

because we had no IDs.

When I asked,

she said yes, she remembered

our father’s name

but, though she screwed up her face

in trying, she could not

match it to a face.



I light the room, a match, a cigarette.

The clock on the wall measures air pressure;

the cricket on the screen has slowed with the cooling of summer.

The far thunder figures not enough in the painting on the wall, where

three grouse sit startled in the snow.

They used to hang such eyes by the neck in a cat at night from the fence

by the school. In the morning the girls would run to the hedge to  barf with little sounds.

The priest who  went  to school with my mother is dead.

I remember that he always turned his head to say “Good Morning.”

I will write that I am sorry at the news:

he said a quick  mass; he had  an easy way with men and

the eyes that women want in brothers, sons, neighbors’ husbands,

and their priests; he made a boy glad to be what

becomes a photograph

that is not forgotten.

My father wrote me one letter; I was lying in a bed in a room with

a high window. I had lost count of time

in the sky’s slow game of gray and black.  My father was not well.

l have moved his letter to secrecy among my books.

l play a  game  of guess and wait. Tonight it will not rain. I will listen

until I cannot sleep.


[This last poem was originally published in College English, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Apr., 1983), p. 361.]



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