Monday, July 1, 2019

July Poetry Challenge - Returning

If you were to take a verbal Rorschach test, and were asked what you think of when you hear the word “return,” what would come to your mind? I suggest that you write a list before you read further.

Would you think of when your father returned from Vietnam? When you returned from Iraq or Afghanistan, or from a trip with your children to Disneyland or the Grand Canyon? When your grandmother returned from the cemetery after putting flowers on her parents’ graves, or from the ice cream shop with chocolate all over her face?

Do you think of the returns (or lack of returns) on your investments? Tax returns? The train returning to the station? Your grandchildren returning from the park? The birthday greeting, “many happy returns of the day”? Birds or animals returning in the spring? A return ticket? Homecoming? Election returns? A second bout of cancer or pneumonia? The return of Jesus expected by Christians? The Return of the Native, Ahab’s Return, or another book or movie? Liberated prisoners or refugees returning home? Returning to school after vacation—or after a hiatus?

As you can see, the word “return” opens up a wealth of ideas for poets (and other writers).

John Lehman’s title, “Returning,” has a double meaning:


I twist in sleep
as children crawl
from beds and bump
down stairs
for a drink of water.
If I hear and pretend
I don't
they return
and with a finger poke
my back whispering
"We are back."
I have seen them downstairs,
they go from one room
to the next
or only stand awhile,
then return.
Sometimes they climb in
my bed
and squirm until I sigh
"Enough--go sleep in
your bed,"
then dream (for years
are heavy covers)
of being a child

~ John Lehman

From The Shrine of the Tooth Fairy (Cambridge Book Review Press, 1998), p. 37.

I could hear those little feet padding down the hall—and with the poet, find my resulting dreams returning me to childhood as I sleep. It was the metaphor of the years as “heavy covers” that really made the poem for me.

Mary Jo Balistreri writes about another kind of return in this poignant poem about her father:

Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground

Today he gets a flu shot. Picks up a sliver
in his finger at the clinic. He’s angry
at the nurse for taking too much blood.
A person only has so much.

He washes a few dishes in a sink heavy with suds,
the flash of his yellow gloves in and out of bubbles
like a canary at its bath. He takes this chore seriously,
does not notice or care that water runs down
the cabinets and splashes onto the floor.
Risen from the dead of a sub-dural hematoma, he is
a handful, this eighty-nine-year-old father.
Shiny-eyed with the unexpected gift of second sight,
he craves independence, dislikes being questioned,
becomes cagey and stubborn, and moves beyond
beyond his ability; his unused legs teeter toward disaster.

In the slant of late afternoon sun, I sit at the table
and ponder the turn of events. I think of Martha and Mary,
wonder how they coped with Lazarus newly emerged
from the tomb. Were they, too, stunned into disbelief,
that he had come back the same, but somehow different?

Evening, and he curls up in his lounge chair, dinner napkin clutched
in his hand like a small stuffed animal. Willy Nelson sings
in the background; his closed eyelids flutter like wings.
On a night like this did Mary sigh, look upon her brother
like I look upon my father, and say to Martha,
                        Look how tender, how soundly he sleeps.

~ Mary Jo Balistreri

From Still (FutureCycle Press, 2018), p. 65.

How tenderly the poet looks on her father, in all his stubbornness and his insistence on being more independent that his physical condition justifies. Looking now at her father who has survived a near-death episode, the poet gets just a glimpse of what it might have been like for Mary and Martha when their brother was resurrected after three days in the Bible Story she has heard many times. Lazarus returns but, the poet suggests, he is changed, as her father has changed. The tenderness of the poem and the questioning look at the Scripture story give this poem much depth.