October 16, 2020

Martin Vest


Reading a book by a respected poet,
I come to a poem that I don’t understand.
It’s one of many, really, but as this one
is particularly famous, I surrender my pride 
to the internet and conduct a quick search 
from which I learn that the piece 
is about the death of the author’s father.

More confused than ever, I return to the book, 
wondering how I could miss something so essential.
It’s here somewhere in all these words,
this tangled rosary of stanzas linked by asterisks.
But I could never find Waldo in his red and white world,
the crown among the zigzags in Highlights’ hidden pictures—
and even now, I concede, I am not clever enough
to find the death of this man’s father in his poem.

As a boy, I was in special education,
pinched into tiny cinder-block rooms that stank
of citric cleanser and earwax.
We studied the mathematics of bananas
and apples, fought with prepositions,
tried our hands at haiku,
converting syllables into one
too many blackbirds, while in other rooms 
students turned numbers into music and made 
chemicals react in puffs of natural magic.

Monumental! blurbs one writer.
Resonating! raves another. Erudite! Unflinching!
I stare into the page the way one stares into a 3D poster, 
waiting for an image to emerge,
but nowhere can I see a dead father.

Frustrated, I lay the volume aside 
and begin tidying the room,
anxious to shake off this sense of inadequacy,
as I was once so eager to escape
the syndromes and impediments
and congenital hygienes of my classmates,
when I stared into the night sky
of a workbook—
the constellations, dots I couldn’t connect,
figures I couldn’t grasp,
which existed, I was told,
somewhere above me.

from Rattle #68, Summer 2020


Martin Vest: “Until recently I kept a Sharpied slip of paper taped to my wall: ‘SHUT UP,’ it said. I put it there to remind myself to do just that. The sign didn’t work; I didn’t shut up. But on the internet I see plenty of admonitions against speaking too freely: ‘overshare,’ ‘TMI.’ Shut-up signs are everywhere. My favorite poets often reveal ‘too much.’ I don’t know what I’d do without that generosity. I’d have probably died long ago of something lonely.”

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