“At Night My Father Does Not Sing” by Samuel Hughes

Samuel Hughes


The jukebox of my father’s hands plays on and on,
the guitar balanced childlike on his knee.

Although he does not bring out the support arm
or the little footstool, he sits up straight

against the sagging easy chair so that
his hands are free. I slouch in the chair beside him,

also armed, my frame supported on the
burnished empty wooden box I hold.

When I go south to visit, this is what we do,
sit up in the dusty living room

of his air-conditioned house, playing music,
the house crouched beneath the squat mountain,

which is not a mountain really, but
a finger of the plateau that stretches

through here from Georgia almost to Ohio.
And really it is only he that plays.

Though years ago I gave up thinking
on my separate fretboard I could imitate

the motion of his hands, I’ll try a while
to make sense of the borrowed instrument.

He always keeps at least one spare. He cares
that I care enough to entertain

the possibility. It isn’t that
we do not talk, but somehow talk falls short.

Watchbands and bicycles, external hard-drives aside,
we are not quite satisfied we know each other’s mind.

On and on, the baroque James Taylor
coloratura, the peach and periwinkle

North Carolina sunset he’s been practicing
since the seventies, before he went

off to the war, the original Travis-pick
now overgrown with ornament, the pattern

now submerged, but still expected.
Even as a young man, he was afraid

to show his voice before an audience.
Now, nearing seventy, he plays still close-mouthed.

The simple farmhouse he inhabits,
his still-nimble fingers hammering-on

and on, as if installing new appliances.
I’ve learned enough to hear how few the chords are.

His hands now spidering across only
the first three frets, constrained to some old

country song, something to wail against
a broken banjo, something I would know.

He is trying. He leans forward. I see now
He has been waiting for me to sing.

from Rattle #61, Fall 2018


Samuel Hughes: “A lot of what I write has to do with attempts at communication, how complicated it is, especially in places where you wouldn’t think it would be, especially when it has to do with art. I play old-timey banjo, while my father plays sort of baroque, post-folk-scare, fingerstyle guitar: two adjacent styles of music, but still not really quite compatible. And musical practice, for an amateur like myself at least, and perhaps for him as well, is so intensely private anyway. What part of the hours I spend blundering through the same old fiddle tune over and over again can I bring out and show to another person? How much of the mess of your inarticulate private self can you bring out into the light and not have it burn up like a vampire? How do you really say something to anyone? Even your parents? Especially your parents? I guess this is me trying.” (web)

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