There is a phase during childhood when we start paying attention to the whispers in the house. Early on, we are oblivious to most adult matters, and our questions center on the world as it relates to us: Where does our milk come from? What makes the jack-in-the-box pop up? When we hear grownups talking, their conversations are often incomprehensible. They do not involve us, and so we take little interest in them. Then, as our consciousness expands, we realize that another side of the world is being hidden from us. We wonder what is actually in the songs marked “explicit” that our parents skip on Apple Music, what is written in the books on the high shelf. Sometimes, we gather perplexing bits of evidence, but we would need an older sleuth to piece them together for us.
“Grandfather,” my poem this week in the Journal of Radical Wonder, is about that time of bewildered curiosity. It appeared in The First Thing Mastered, which came out ten years ago this month from Tebot Bach and was the first book that I wrote entirely as a piece. Its predecessors, Thief After Dark and College Town, are more or less hodgepodges of unrelated poems; The First Thing Mastered goes chronologically through the first three and a half decades of life, with motifs and developing themes along the way. “Grandfather” fits into the book’s first half. It’s about naivete, but so are all poems about childhood. I think the reason that time of life is such a rich vein for poets is that we survive it first and figure it out later. When we tap into our elementary-school selves again, we wield the perspective of age but also the memory of those omnivorous wide eyes. I think of the famous line from Sandra Cisneros: "What they don't understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you're eleven, you're also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one."
I remember being all those ages. If Cisneros is to be trusted, then I still have each of them in me. "Grandfather" is not based on a true story, but I grew up around mysteries, as all of us do, and perhaps this poem came out of lingering curiosities. The title character is a patriarch who lives with two younger generations of his family. He fled unrest in some country, presumably in Asia, and now lives a quiet life full of strict routines: the same drink poured at the same time, the same music on the radio, the same ritual of waking up. The children in the house are fascinated by his past but know not to question the whispers. Those faded photographs and artifacts in the drawer must mean something, and the answer will remain unknown until someone says it out loud.
This poem contain a double meaning that I didn’t realize when I wrote it. At the end, the grandfather walks into the room where the children are playing with action figures, taps the plastic Darth Vader, and intones, Real guys like this. Real guys. Over the years, I’ve had a few people express curiosity about the intent of those lines. Is the grandfather cautioning the children that villains aren’t simply a fictional concept -- i.e., “There are real guys like this in the world”? Or is he complimenting the boys for being manly by playing war games -- i.e., “Real guys like this sort of thing”?
When I wrote those lines, I had one of the above meanings in mind and didn’t even think about the other one. Which one did I intend? I refuse to say. This is a poem about secrets, so I’m content to let it have a secret of its own. The other week, I quoted Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica,” which ends with the proclamation “A poem should not mean / but be.” If the final lines of this poem resonate on their own, then they’ve done their basic duty. I have a feeling that if we asked the grandfather to explain his comments, he would be elusive too.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.