Long Distance II
Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
Put hot water bottles her side of the bed
And still went to renew her transport pass.
You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
He’d put you off an hour to give him time
To clear away her things and look alone
As though his still raw love were such a crime.
He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
Though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
Scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.
I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
In my new black leather phone book there’s your name
And the disconnected number I still call.
TONY HARRISON (b. 1937)
I wonder, what is the first thing you see about this poem?
Is it the shape, the rhyme, the words or is it the title itself? If it is the latter, then you will notice the use of the “II” at the end. What does that suggest, if not that there has been a first one of the same title? Presumably, the poet has already written one called “Long Distance” and this is the second effort. It may be linked to the first, or not, so do some research I beg you.
So, what is it about then?
Well, the first thing we see is that the speaker’s mother has been dead for two years but that this poem is about a father who seems to be living a lie, if he is still alive [you choose]. As a father, if my wife was to die, I would tell everyone I am okay, but the truth of the matter would be that I would be a wreck!
The poet says that “though my mother was already two years dead, Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,” as if it was the best thing for him to do to keep her memory alive. The longer the marriage, the more that this is bound to happen. I have been married for thirty years now and if this happened to me, then there would be a huge amount of time where I would keep everything in its place that meant something to me as a link to her memory.
The father would “put hot water bottles [on] her side of the bed and still went to renew her transport pass.” Clearly, this is a man who is hurting because of his love for his wife and mother to his children. His life, in a sense, has ended. It all seems so pointless now because he has not got the love of his life there any more. It is quite a sad poem therefore.
This is a father for whom you “you couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.” He has set up a network for his family and friends, who all know the rules for contacting him. Was this before the advent of social media, I wonder, for if it was, then that would make a lot of sense to me. Today, we contact each other on social media, like Twitter and Facebook, to see how our friends and family are, or we text them. If this was written before this time in our lives then we have to understand the isolation he is now feeling.
The poet says that “he’d put you off [for] an hour to give him time to clear away her things and look alone, as though his still raw love were such a crime.” Now you may ask why he would do that, why he would want to have his wife’s things on show when he is alone and not when others come. The truth is twofold; he does not want to share her memories and therefore does not want others to see her things and feel as if they need to do something for him in his loneliness. He just does not want the pity that comes from people in these moments.
Instead, he would put them off and wait for their arrival once everything is sorted out in his home, when all his wife’s things have been put away. Ask yourself the question; when someone comes to where you live, does the house get sorted and cleared if you know someone is coming? There is a part of this here, but he does not want the questions either and is happy to put things back again when the visitors have departed. He does this in order to not “risk [the] blight of disbelief” from his child/ren or friends even though there would no doubt be a time when “very soon he’d hear [the] key scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.”
Now, ask yourself the question, is the father now dead as well? The line that reads “he knew she’d just popped out to get the tea” suggests this may be the case and the child is looking back over the last two years since the mother’s death [after the father’s death]. Or is the father still alive and thinking that when he hears “her key’ in the door, [put there by the child visiting] that it is his wife simply returning, a sign of false hope in his heart that she is not dead? I shall let you decide on that one, for with poetry, there is no wrong answer and it depends on your life experience and how you live life and understand its complexities.
Look at the last verse, which is where the truth of this poem, according to the poet, emerges onto the paper. The poet says “I believe life ends with death, and that is all.” This is one very dry way of looking at life, leaving those who are left with little hope for the future. We live. We love. We die. That is the end. The poet expresses the frustration that comes from such a belief saying “you haven’t both gone shopping” as if to dispel the practices of her father when the mother was dead.
But then we get the last section, where the poet states that “in my new black leather phone book there’s your name and the disconnected number I still call.” Now this does suggest that father has died and child is looking at the father’s life since the mother passed, how their love and their relationship is a symbol of true love, of how love should be but also, of the desperation that love and then loss can bring. It is, therefore, a very powerful poem indeed. S/he feels the pain and the loss of the father and the mother and still rings the number. I have heard of this, where someone will keep the mobile phone of the deceased, so as to ring them up and listen to their voicemail message, just to hear the voice once again after they have died. It is such a powerful emotion, this love that suffers loss.