Ballad of my daddy
Born before President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, you chose against your parents’ wishes and sailed to mysterious lands on Merchant Marine ships, to engage in the world war you were too young to fight in. At night, you scribed in a ledger book, from secretarial school, the bawdy poems of love and gold fever and fighting you heard performed by worn out sailors inspired by their strange sweet smoke exhaled into the dark hours on the sea.
your heart was a poet’s, daddy
but no one ever knew
When you returned, eyes wide with learning, lips chapped from salt air, you were homeless with empty pockets walking down the plank into San Francisco, a city carousing to jazz, spilling bootlegged beer and bathtub gin. Still not yet 25, looking for work at Salvation Army but instead you got a slip of paper to return, so you wouldn’t disturb the officers eating well in backroom offices.
you listened like a poet, daddy
but no one ever knew
You rode boxcars with talented hobos into the fields of the Central Valley and landed on an extra bed at a camp, and there was work! The hot sun burned your hands and Irish face as you pitched hay, cut, stacked, bundle the harvested vegetables with migrant workers who poured over the northern plains like locusts, backs strong and telling tales in languages you’d never heard before, while mothers and sisters hummed to babies hanging from trees in cloth cradles, you savored every story Auggie translated, and wrote them into the ledger memorizing lives.
you had desires of a poet, daddy
but no one ever suspected
Until winter threatened, and you split from camp to head into the mountains, ride horses with commercial hunters across snow, burning your eyes, leading pack horses loaded with pelts, game meat, and fur. At evening men’s breath made moving shapes around the campfire, and you listened to other tales spun by those crusty hunters of their lives in bars and mines and mountains, fighting and loving, blood shed and taken, their wild lives bruised and burnished your soul with words hard and cutting, but the lyric of their lives settled in your memory.
Daddy, with them you became a poet
but no one ever saw
Late at night you would pull out that stiff black book and wrote in the secret of dark, until one night, head resting against the coveted colt pistol, you saw your search was done, you’d found his gold. These were the men, the lives you’d been wandering to find, they became your teachers, taught you to question, to watch, to take action into your own hands. And you brought those new ways home not yet 30, and settled into making life without plans, except to build a better world, not knowing what shape to give these intangible treasures that battled for a place against the norms branded onto your heart, and you closed the book.
you kept your dream alive inside
but no one ever sensed it
You remembered, as one does with an old family album many times gently paged through, on many nights around our fishing campfires, you’d recite to us kids, mysterious songs and tales of the famous and some unknowns, maybe even a few poems of your own, but you never let on either way. You could catch us, lads and lassies, on fire with those poems of saloons and golden dreams turned to rubble, ruby red women, and dangerous miners from fierce mountain years, a sacrificed past I’d always remember, stories that stole us away for just a wee bit before sleep.
you hid your poet life, daddy
but no one ever knew
You crooned those lyrics so often your own boys could recite along with you. But you never shared your own dreams and hopes, you just retold adventures in poems passed to you in boats or boxcars or tents in the dark, but no one could see the poet under the cover of the drama they were in. So, finally you put aside the black book to give into to the life you were born into, and found that feisty woman to make a family with. Not the life you’d searched and longed for, that became history in your heart, hidden in the debris of the past. But that fire of a woman knew, she knew where you’d come from, wasn’t afraid, and kept the mythology alive with you.
You had recognized the dream again and again in the poems, of a life you walked away from to become a father, you who had a burning passion for a woman whose fire was as hot and bold as your own, spawned two mighty sons who learned to recite the tales of the book. And you lived long enough to tell your treasured young daughter, in your own Victorian rebel’s style, “You’re almost as good lookin’ as your mother!” That book of mystery and lives was your legacy to us, your babies and our futures.
Your hidden poet lives on in your girl, I received your gift of poetry like an apprentice receives a skill from a craftsman passing his trade to his progeny. It’s still there, that black book, worn, ripped in the last cycle, of your life completed with a bullet in your scull.
yes, you were a poet, daddy
it echoes in my soul
Sharon Lopez Mooney, “Ballad of my daddy”, from Clockhouse Poetry, ed.Ken Damerow,Virginia, Summer 2022