“Love bears the name of our fathers, of their leaving themselves behind,” writes Byrna Barclay in her self-reflection upon this suite of poems upon, yes, her lost father. It’s nearly impossible to go mentally from the sweet photo above — father and daughter in a hammock, a book, the daughter sleeping safely in the cradle of his legs — to the idea that Byrna Barclay never actually knew her father, that he was dead before she was three. Byrna Barclay’s poems are poignant reconstructions of absence, they are like the light from a cosmic event millions of years old, the light filters through the universe but the star is gone.
Byrna Barclay lives in Saskatchewan. She is prolific writer of novels and short stories. She is not exactly an old friend. We shared a car ride from Saskatoon to Regina one summer day in the last century and managed not to keep in touch until Numéro Cinq brought us back into contact. A wonderful thing about the magazine is that it picks up lost threads.
See more work in the NC Fathers Collection here.
It seems to me that every writer has a Robertson Davies’ snowball, a traumatic event in early life after which nothing is ever the same again. So many spend their writing life avoiding the telling, but that single moment not only informs their work but is the pressure beneath the lines. It always erupts in imagistic and recurring threads, like dream. Mine was the death of my father on the day before my third birthday. That loss punctuates everything I write.
Sometimes, in the search for father one must go through the mother to find him. The absent father. So shape-changing he disappears at the point of contact. Yet love bears the name of our fathers, of their leaving themselves behind.
From the Land of the Dead
I once knew a poet who took three naps a day
then wrote poems about his dreams. Mine
are wild these nights, with flying
red tea-table chairs from my childhood,
empty closets, bookshelves bereft
of my father’s unfinished stories.
When I wake up I feel as if I’ve been held
by someone who didn’t appear in the dream.
How did that old song go? Darn that dream.
I can still hear the sugar-sprinkled-on-cream-
of-wheat voice, but can’t recall the singer’s name.
I remember stories but forget the authors,
how between Great Wars a plum burst
in a poet’s mouth.
Tonight my mother takes my children
to the merry-go-round-man
I once wanted her to marry
so I could have all the rides she couldn’t afford.
Too much money spent on story-books treasured
in the linen closet. I read my self to sleep. At school
I made up the story. The King of the Dead Sea
looked like my father & rode a seahorse out of clouds,
twirling a seaweed rope that turned into a ladder
to save trapped in the turret of the castle school
a pigtailed child who looked too much like me.
From the land of the dead my mother
lugs home my teacher father’s scarred desk,
his steamer trunk full of Dime novels,
his portable Royal typewriter, its red ribbon
shredded, even his ink blotter. A feather pen.
She puts them in all the wrong places.
She brings me his manuscripts:
a radio play, a textbook on how to teach
Drama. A story about Riel. Rebellion. His last
memory about his home in India: Ivory hunters
& elephants long walks, their struggle to die
in ancestral graveyards.
With indelible ink he signed his name. Letters
squirm like unfolding larva, leap
to a height undreamed of by a moth,
final landing soft. In my palm:
proof that my father lived, his ivory voice
no longer lost
among elephant bones.
More than I wanted the big kids
to boost me up to the window
so I could kiss Dougie
just back from the sanitorium
I wanted his sloe-eyed father
just back from the War
to marry my widowed mother
so she would stop her nightly fall
down a bottomless well. Stop
screeching about boys spreading germs.
She made a doctor take pictures of sacs
in my chest the same way
Dougie’s shoe-salesman father
let me see how the bones of my feet fit
inside brand-new Mary Janes
through a magic box that made snow.
More than I wanted to marry Allan
when I grew up, I needed his shoemaker
father who hid red licorice in his leather apron
to marry my mother when his mother died.
In the pockets of his father’s pants
hanging on the line we found matches
and struck them on the stucco house.
His mother screamed and slapped Allan,
and mine warned me about the danger
of playing with fire. She never knew
how Allan and I practiced for our parents,
he wearing his father’s airforce jacket and cap,
me trailing my mother’s lace curtain veil
in a ceremony fired by loss.
Years later, more than I wanted to marry
a man with the same initials as my father’s
I needed to get away from my mother.
Red is the Colour of Mourning
My father has finally come
not for me, twenty-one years older
than he was when he died,
but for my winter-weary mother.
He waits on the other side
of a window. Large
so my mother can look out
at a changed world: Sun-grilled
dunes ripple away from scrub
towards a calmed river
as far-reaching as the sky.
Only three when he left,
I never knew him,
yet I’m awed by suddenly remembered
perfection of features clearer
than the line where a lowering sky meets earth.
Humped nose broken three times
on the rugby field.
Eyes as large and mild as a sacred cow’s
in the country of his birth. He wears a red turban,
an out-of-place scarlet coatee
as if he’s just come from a ghat.
In India red is the colour of mourning.
Here, it’s the deep shade
of my mother’s passion,
of her anger at his leaving her,
of her forgetting his name.
I hear my father’s voice
modulated and muted
as if coming from the bottom of a river.
More than a call to my mother, or a comfort to me,
it’s the knowing: I heard this voice
before I was old enough to remember
a swaying hammock, his singing
me to sleep and every little wave had its night cap on…
I expect my father to come for my mother
in a winter caboose pulled by Clydesdales,
but he beckons from a refurbished roadster,
the one my mother crashed into a ditch
to avoid hitting the Rainbow
bridge where he carved their initials.
He won’t let her drive now.
Leaving me behind glass,
they’re away, river-bound,
with a salute from him,
a promise to return for me.
Love Stories You Just Can’t Tell
Your widowed mother picked up a stranger
on a train. He wore a suit just like your dead father’s.
She said she’d sub-letted her barn of a house
& you had to stay in a hotel until the renters left.
He said his name was the same as the hotel’s,
only backwards: George King.
When you fell asleep he was taking off
your father’s identical trousers.
Among My Father’s Curios
In this chanber of glass
this cabinet of teak carved
with thistles and flights of birds
I find the jaded head of the judge,
my father’s grandfather.
Against the scent of jasmine
against the blowing up of sand
his nose turns down. Brief & jagged
line of lip & curve of jaw
juts above his court tabs
stiff with starch. They say in India
he ordered hung sixteen sepoys
each mutinous day.
One severed lock of his powdered wig
lies safe in a silver snuff box
with monogram: W.L.H.
Here is a photo of my faher,
a sultry turbaned boy
astride a country pony. They say
he spoke only Hindustani. Forbidden
his grandfather’s English tongue
lest he speak improper Cheechee
learned from the servant holding the reins.
On the first shelf
a blue chiffon violet
folds its leaves
into a square of silk.
…………………………………………My first Elizabeth was my first love.
On the second shelf
in a curry dish
a single hook & button of jade
a wooden brooch: cherries
…………………………………………My second Elizabeth was the mother
…………………………………………of my children.
On the third shelf
a shop girl’s bright brass camel,
ivory tusks of her trade. They say
to her he left all his worldly goods,
disinheriting his children. My father.
…………………………………………\My third, Eliza, the delight of my dotage.
Beneath crossed sabers
…………….whips & spurs
I staring stand & dare not
touch the jade(d) head
sitting in judgement
on the skin of a leopard.
Did He Dance?
Dorothy told me they buried my father under the ice. She was four whole years older. She took me to her church after supper. The girl with the brilliant hair twirled, flimsy skirt flared. She’s going straight to hell, Dorothy said. The girl’s red mouth opened: she howled. She fell down and her hair hid her face. See? Dorothy said. She gripped my hand. The screen went dark, the lights came on, and Dorothy led me down the rows of bowed heads to the back of the hall. A woman in a blue dress made me kneel on the seat of a chair. The scabs on my knees hurt. Her father died, Dorothy said. They put him in a box lined with satin and buried him under the ice. Was he baptized or christened? the woman said. Did he drink? Did he smoke? Did he dance? Pray for your father’s soul! On the way home, crossing the skating rink, I twirled circles on the ice. I fell down. I brushed away the snow. The ice was clear and blue. I pressed my face into think snow, tried to see my father buried there, his last pale unshaven face, his last dance.
How I Want to Remember Them
1. I must forget how I moved
….in…. slow…. motion
through air white as a blank page.
So white. My father’s freckled face,
his raven-wing hair fanned on a pillow.
In my mother’s black photo album
he holds me aloft, as if awed
by his own small reflection.
This is how I know
………………………he knew me.
2. I must forget my mother’s death mask,
the sharp beak of a squab,
her hair cropped albino crow-feathers,
a crone’s toothless mouth agape.
This is how I remember her:
Saturday morning opera from New York.
Jan Peerce’s voice filled with light.
My mother’s let-down braids
the colour of sun’s early song, red
chenille robe whirling, me on her hip,
she dances me
………………….Till doors change places with windows.
3. Only a dream can give memory
to a child too young to remember them
together. I find them mirrored
in the silver tea service tray he gave her.
Every day he brought her breakfast in bed
until he fell ill, and she served him
while in the mountain ash outside
a robin sang of morning.
Picture them in pillowed bliss,
honeyed lips, a bit of döppa, dunking
thin strips of toast in soft-boiled egg
or in coffee made in the Swedish way
just for her. Braided life-
bread, sticky with icing and jam.
He won’t let her lick her fingers,
dipping the tips in a silver bowl,
then dabbing them with starched white serviettes
saved for these mornings reflected
in a silver dream she polished for me.
My Father’s Gloves
Found in my mother’s steamer trunk
the suede gloves she saved
have taken the shape of paws
yellow backhair curried
padded underside cracked
& each long finger
the curl of a claw.
I hold palm against palm
smell the dampness
of an old cave
into winter sleep.
My hands grow a second skin
My Surrogate Father
I called him Uncle, my mother’s cousin, Karl Mauritz The Moose Millar. When he was thirteen and the eldest of ten, his switchman father died, and his mother left one porkchop on the window sill so the neighbours would think they hae meat for dinner. That night The Moose left home and didn’t return until he found a job as a stockboy for the Buffalo Nut & Bolt Co. He worked his way up to Vice-president, one of the last of the self-made men.
The Moose looked after everyone in the family. Leg braces for sister Maimie. Food for sister Violet when her steel-maker-man boozed away his pay cheque. When he found his first wife in bed with his brother he paid for her care in an asylum. He lost his son Missionary Bob to malarial anger, the chill of grieving too long for an absent mother.
Every week The Moose wrote to me, the Canadian half-orphan, stories about our great-grandmother who swept the streets of Ystad to pay their way to America, how my grandmother looked like the gleaner in The Song of the Lark. His own painting of her granary house failed when he forgot her woodflowers transplanted from the grave of her father to her husband’s beneath our Canadian cold-blue spruce. When I turned thirteen he wrote: Never dance with a kilted man. It all started when our Swedish ancestor, with grog jug in on hand and the hair of his woman in the other, dragged her up the Celtic shores.
The Moose gave me away when I eloped with the son of a Scot, his glasses splashed with old tears.
Love Bears the Name
I am the child lifted
onto my father’s heaving chest.
His raven hair sweeps back
……………………….What’s going to happen
””””””””””””””””””’to my holy-hecker? His last words
beating through halls turning.
A dark-hooded woman leads me to another room
where stained glass refuses morning.
A box lined with satin
will hold his sleep.
I believe I took away
his last long breath.
He has gone to the War.
He floats under ice.
He has gone to Winnipeg.
I will find him if I reach
for the red sky.
I dream of the men who took my father away
on a bed with straps, away in a wailing car.
Into my hands my mother thrusts
a small red box. A snake
writhes around her fingers. In side the box
her wedding ring sinks into leaves soft as dust.
On a sleigh-shaped bed
my mother slides over ice.
She screams herself awake
from an endless fall.
Morning is the hardest.
Basement cold. Night ashes
in the furnace. No coal.
She struggles to her school,
falls on ice. And stars
stare down: red.
She tells me my father’s dream:
when his father died
he found him boarding a plane.
He couldn’t stop his father
from flying away.
Love bears the name of our fathers,
of their leaving
Byrna Barclay has published a series of novels known as The Livelong Quartet, three collections of short stories, the most recent being Girl at the Window, and a hybrid, searching for the nude in the landscape. Her many awards include The Saskatchewan Culture and Youth First Novel Award, SBA Best Fiction Award, and City of Regina Award, YMCA Woman of the Year, CMHA National Distinguished Service Award, SWG Volunteer Award, Sask. Culture Award, and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit. In 2010 she published her 9th book, The Forest Horses, which was nominated for Best Fiction for the Saskatchewan Book Awards. Her poetic drama, The Room With Five Walls: The Trials of Victor Hoffman, an exploration of the Shell Lake Massacre, won the City of Regina Award. She has been president of SWG twice, President of Sask. Book Awards, and Fiction Editor of GRAIN magazine. A strong advocate for Mental Health as well as the arts, she served as President of CMHA, Saskatchewan, was the founding Chair of the Minister’s Advisory Council on Mental Health, and for twenty years was the Editor-in-chief of TRANSITION magazine. Vice-chair of the Saskatchewan Arts Board from 1982-1989, she is currrently the Chair. Mother of actor Julianna Barclay, she lives in Regina.