My Father Would Not Show Us
[Which way do we face to talk to the dead?]
Dedicated to: Rainer Maria Rilke
My father’s face
five days dead
is organised for me to see.
It’s cold in here
and the borrowed coffin gleams unnaturally;
the pine one has not yet been delivered.
Half-expected this inverted face
but not the soft, for some reason
unfrozen collar of his striped pyjamas.
This is the last time I am allowed
to remember my childhood as it might have been:
a louder, braver place,
crowded, a house with a tin roof
being hailed upon, and voices rising,
my father’s wry smile, his half-turned face.
My father would not show us how to die.
He hid, he hid away.
Behind the curtains where his life had been,
the florist’s flowers curling into spring,
he lay inside, he lay.
He could recall the rag-and-bone man
passing his mother’s gate in the morning light.
Now the tunnelling sound of the dogs next door;
everything he hears is white.
My father could not show us how to die.
He turned, he turned away.
Under the counterpane, without one call
or word or name,
face to the wall, he lay.
Ingrid de Kok
I remember when my father died. I was at home and we had not spoken for over three years due to separation and when the call came in I went to see my mother and sort out the funeral arrangements. Disregarding my relationship in his later years, with my father, the one thing I chose to do was go and say my own goodbye. I had lived in the hope that he would see the error of tearing into my wife one day and apologise, but as that was not his way, he chose the opposite, well trodden path instead of the one less travelled. In the end, it was me and him in a cold room, him with eyes closed and made up to resemble something of the man he was in life. But the image was a lie. The good was there but the bad wasn’t because the pain of life has long since gone due to heart failure.
So, when I come to a poem like this, the memories of that day come flooding back. I see the poem and its dedication to the Austrian poet and novelist and I see the words that follow and I think of one thing; my own father there in that box. Whether it was the box he would go to the chamber in, to be cremated, I have no idea. But here is a poem that deals with the relationship we all have, with death.
So, what can we make of it for our studies? We can look at all the rhymes and structure, broken as it is to represent the brokenness of death, but we need to understand the relationship more to be able to see what the poet is trying to say. Entitled “My Father Would Not Show Us,” it is an intriguing title. Would not show us what? The title is a little misleading but that will change because what we see next is almost a subtitle, where we see the words, “Which way do we face to talk to the dead?” If you were intrigued by the title, how much more can you be intrigued by the subtitle? Then, we get the dedication to Rainer Maria Rilke, the Austrian poet and German speaking novelist. He was born in 1875 and died in 1926 and came from Bohemia, or Prague as we know it now. A truly beautiful place; enough to get the poet going in any of us.
Now when we read the poem for the first time, if our eyes do not raise heavenward, then there must be something wrong, for here is a man who did the exact opposite to that what his children wanted in life and especially, in death. We see the words, “my father’s face five days dead is organised for me to see.” This is a natural thing to see in the funeral parlour, or the room where he is laid for her to visit, but there is something about the room that is important. She says “it’s cold in here,” which is significant because it has to be cold for the body not to give off too many odours, I assume, but it is also a metaphor for the coldness that is death. When death comes, the body loses its lower and lustre, so coldness comes with rigor mortis and decay.
The coffin that he is in is interesting too. We see how “the borrowed coffin gleams unnaturally” because “the pine one has not yet been delivered.” In order for her to see him like this, they have to put him in something, so they give him the best they have, the gleaming wood of some rich man’s coffin, or maybe, even the best display coffin, but she knows that it will not be the one he is buried in.
She says that she “half-expected this inverted face” which again needs mentioning. This is normal in death, where the muscles relax and unless the body is preserved, the face will contort away from flatness and smile, to that of an inverted upside down U shaped smile. She says she expects to see this which reflects something of the life of the man. She saw it in life so it comes as no surprise it is there in death. But she is not expecting to see the “unfrozen collar of his striped pyjamas.” Whoever has prepared the body has not been able to get him fully dressed and she notes the difference and the expectation of both.
Then, when she has looked past that, she realises something profound; she says “this is the last time I am allowed to remember my childhood as it might have been: a louder, braver place.” Now we see her thinking of how much better life would have been had her father taken so much more of an interest in the things he was doing and those of his children. This is the last time she will see him. This is where the memories flow like raging waters sometimes. They did with me. In the end, all I could say to my father was that he need not worry, that I would look after Mum. I promised. But he was dead and could not hear me. I said it anyway.
Here, in this poem, we see her thinking of a “house with a tin roof being hailed upon, and voices rising, [her] father’s wry smile, his half-turned face.” Note that this is what she wanted, not what she is getting. In life, she wanted the upturned or half turned face. She wanted the smile, but she never got it. Instead, she says, “my father would not show us how to die. He hid, he hid away.” This is the death of a recluse, someone who wanted to simply be alone with his life, with his thoughts, someone who was possibly disturbed in mind so that he could not be the father that she so badly wanted.
Then she tells us something of his life, where “behind the curtains … his life had been” one of “the florist’s flowers curling into spring,” itself a symbol of death and decay as “he lay inside, he lay.” This is someone who has become inverted just like the face he is pulling in death. This is the sort of person who wanted to be alone in life and is quite happy to be so in death. No one else mattered for him in life so no one matters to him as he is laid there. This is a fact of life for some of us.
But the speaker states how in life, “he could recall the rag-and-bone man passing his mother’s gate in the morning light.” So now we get something of the man, a person who looked back always, in life and saw the better things in the past. It hints at the idea that this is a man whose life has turned sour, reflected in his face as he lies in death. Now, all things have ended and we are shown the image of the “tunnelling sound of the dogs next door” and that “everything he hears is white” now. Well of course it is. There is nothing more for him here at all.
If that was not obvious enough for the reader, the next line hammers it home like someone hammering the nails in the coffin of his life. The poet tells us how her father “could not show us how to die. He turned, he turned away.” He turned away from life, from love, from relationships, from those who wanted to love him so much and for me, this tells me one thing; this man has done something so terrible in life in the past that he looks at what he has done [possibly to his family] and he finds he cannot encounter them again without feeling the pain. Or, the situation was in the opposite, for when someone does something so bad to another, we tend to shut down on them don’t we? I know that those who do something terrible to me or my loved ones are shut out from my life, which is just what happened with my father.
So this, for me, is a poignant poem in that it makes me think of my own relationship with my father. He chose to live “under the counterpane, without one call or word or name” for so long that he might as well have had his “face to the wall” because that is what he did to his son, his daughter in law, his only Grandchildren he could see and visit. The rest live abroad you see, but he had said pointedly in the past that he never wanted children, so he was making his choice that day. Did he expect me to back down? Possibly, but it was a better life without him than with.
In the end, the one thing from this poem that intrigues me is the way the poet says he has his “face towards the wall” where “he lay.” Now, go back to the beginning of the poem and the subtitle and ask yourself this question. Why did she write that line? Why did she write “which way do we face to talk to the dead?” The answer lies in the direction he is facing in life, towards the wall, away from her, so she is now ironically asking if there is a direction she should adopt to speak with him now he is dead. It is an interesting question, for me, for how do we speak to those who are deceased?
I remember going to see my father and I remember seeing him there, all fake and nice and I remember talking those eight words. “Don’t worry Dad. I’ll look after Mum now.” There was a fondness in my voice, but also a tinge of regret that neither of us had the gumption to step down from our lofty towers and sort our issues out. In the end, I am keeping my promise and I shall keep my promise until the day that I have to go and see my Mum in the same place and the same position. That is what love is all about.