"This thing is for life," says the movie crime boss to the one just inducted into "the family" in a spooky ritual involving blood and candles. The only light burning in this room is the TV, the sound turned low to let my family sleep. "For life," echoes the just made man.
* * * *
The root of "family" is the Latin familia, which meant servants to a household.
* * * *
My daughter brings home drawings of our family, the three of us with arms protruding from our heads, eyes too large to blink.
Sometimes she colors her face darker because "I'm brown and you're pink."
* * * *
A blog I stumble across calls adoptive parents thieves. I type nine paragraphs in reply, delete them all.
* * * *
A family is music: Kingston Trio songs sung off-key, a father's favorite radio station, the soundtrack to South Pacific. It's turn that down and you call that music? It is a mother and father in the kitchen dancing to a song they forgot they loved.
* * * *
In 1788 "family man" was slang for a thief.
* * * *
A family is a flock of butterflies whispering over an afternoon lawn, a herd of water buffalo knee-deep in river mud, a pride of lions chewing soft meat.
* * * *
Her first day with us, she wept so endlessly I would have called back all the lawyers, the foster mother, erased the small mountain of forms, wiped our faces from our passports to let her sleep quiet in the place she knew. Now she asks the story of that day, prompts us to insert details left out from the last telling until the story is exactly as she wants to hear it.
* * * *
This family speaks brutal fact.
This family speaks gesture and shadow.
This family needs argument before they can sing.
You learn the code when you learn language.
* * * *
Planning the reunion: Frank isn't speaking to a once-favorite niece. No one should mention Jimmy's last rehab or relapse or talk politics with Ray. Someone needs to make a vegan dish for Megan and her fiancée. Jeff and Sherry will be bringing the kids from both marriages. Sonny wants to know if his band can play. There will be no time to rehearse.
* * * *
Families are voices in other rooms, conversations that stop when you walk in, a television's gray noise low at night. There are dishes clattering in the kitchen, chairs scraping the floor. Songs half-heard through closed doors. Toilets flushing. Unnamed missions. A light that burns all night on an empty porch.
* * * *
One afternoon after asking about her birth mother, Isabel draws a picture of herself in front of our house. "I'm leaving to live in my new house," she says.
* * * *
I see my neighbor smoking on his back step, a moment of quiet outside a house clamoring with relatives who slam doors, yell from room to room, play the same CD over and over.
* * * *
From the den my daughter calls, "Mama, it's our song," and for two minutes they are a single unit of joy, dancing to that inane song: "I'm so glad" clap clap clap "you're my family. I'm so glad" clap clap clap.
* * * *
A family is a boomtown, the only nest of light for miles, its laws evolving with each new development. Shifts work around the clock, saloons never close and the streets fill with stories that mean nothing to anyone who doesn't live here.
* * * *
Family began to mean "those connected by blood" in the 1660's. "In the family way" as a euphemism for pregnancy was first recorded in 1796.
* * * *
We could not get in the family way. Now we ask how it could have been any other way.
* * * *
Tonight on the edge of sleep, children hear songs whose words they will never forget, the songs their parents dance to wearing old smiles.
* * * *
Coming in the front door, I hear Isabel's voice, see her run toward me, bend to meet this noise, this music, this song I keep singing in a house crowded by hope, furniture, our collected things, all of them, I hope, for life.
I know the moon offers no light of its own, that its glow,
like ours, is what the sun leaves behind. And I know
what wishes have been wasted on the moon. Tonight,
I wish the ones I love were with me in this small field
near our house to see earth's shadow cross the face
of the fire-reflecting moon. But lately I've let burn
too many small angers, said too many things that can't be
excused or taken back. I've wanted too much time in fields alone.
Still, the house is not dark behind me. A light burns,
low and constant in our daughter's room as she sleeps.
And last night we fell asleep with the lamp burning above us
like an unfinished conversation. Tonight,
Isabel turned off the light in her room to play with a toy
that casts patterns of stars and crescent moons across
the night-blank walls. After she dropped into sleep,
I lay on her floor a while inventing constellations, giving names
to those soon-to-vanish formations: The Bad Father,
The Child Rising, The House of the Family Dreaming.
Leaving her room, I switched on the lamp by her door.
We like the idea of a light above us, proving an end
to the dark. But a flashlight cutting a pattern of tiny commas
in a neighbor's yard pulls my gaze from the shift of light
and shadow in the sky. If it could talk, the moon might tell me
the flashlight has more to say about the transitory nature
of light than any eclipse. Everything passes. In the morning
I'll tell my loved ones about the color of the moon
and all they missed, but morning has its own business,
and they know the moon will be there tonight to preside over
this constellation, this body of light, we made and remain.
The Moon as Absence and Desire
Scythe moon, blade cleaving sky, body
mostly hidden, but present, large
and undeniable as the white disc of pain
being hammered so it burns with friction
at the end of his spine's frayed string.
Earlier, he sat in a bar with no clocks
and naked girls onstage, drinking bourbon
he gets free for figuring the owner's taxes.
Blurred by whiskey and pain, the bodies
in front of him appeared untouched and mysterious
as the moon. He envied the loose flow of muscle
in one girl who spun upside down on the pole,
legs scissoring air, the plane of her back
rippling the way wind bends a field's high grass,
ancestor to the ocean that once shifted
above the fields that make an island
of his empty house. There are creeks he wades
to find teeth, bits of vertebrae, remains
of what came inland and died.
Years of addition, subtraction, moving decimals have
taught him no sum is final, that all
value remains relative. Sleepless, he stares
at tonight's infinite moon while memory slips
from the girl in the bar to a circus acrobat
he saw when he was eight or nine, who seized
the end of a rope in her teeth and was raised
in a spotlight's dusty glare, above
the suddenly silent crowd until she hung,
the only thing illuminated in all the dark tent.
The moon-hard bend in her back, an arch
strong enough to support bridges, city gates,
mocks his clumsy bending, the muscles fisted
across his back before he straightened,
all the planets of his spine slipped out of favor.
Balance eroded, the way riverbanks give
in floods, shelves of sand and gravel dissolved
into a million rumbling fragments.
His plan had been to get home, creep inside
careful as a tightrope walker and collapse
into a heating pad and pain pills,
but the electricity was off, the bills
and past due notices all neglected
in the three months since she moved out,
life emptied of sex, soft kisses, warm kitchen smells.
So he drove from a house slowly being filled by dark
to a bar that has no name to watch girls
chewing gum, sporting their first tattoos, dance,
incandescent with speed, eyes locked onto heavens
more distant than the moon he sees cradled
outside his uncurtained window. When every eye
was fixed on her, when no cough or cy
broke the tent's deep quiet, the woman
hanging from the rope began to turn,
slowly, then faster, until her body was
a spangled blur, perfect in its distance.
The moon's talent is subtraction: trees carved
to shadow, stones shaved to a gleaming edge.
Grass lies slicked to oil-black essence.
The fingernail of moon that divides the sky
makes it whole, the way a creek's dark sand gains
context from housing history's mute remnants.
He could have shown one of those nameless girls
the star-pale scar between two knuckles,
fossil of the night he tried to make visible
the heart's silent rage. Blood fell
like absolution that would not come,
and he understood that no number and no pain
will ever be final. The woman who left
will call, her voice so distant she might live
in the shell he takes from the table to feel
its cold curve. His back will be straight by then,
his house filled with light, her absence
simply one mark in the debit column
of a ledger with no permanent balance.
The moon will wane and swell above
dumb waves of dirt while the dancing goes on.
And on some nights, like this one, the bar's owner
will stare out his office window, considering
the sign his accountant suggested he buy
and the name he might give this place.
-from Inventing Constellations
BIO: Al Maginnes is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently Film History (Word Tech Editions, 2005) a chapbook, Dry Glass Blues (Pudding House Publications, 2007), Ghost Alphabet (2008), which won the 2007 White Pine Poetry Prize, and Inventing Contellations (Word Tech Editions, 2012). His poems have appeared widely and he is the former recipient of a North Carolina Artist’s Grant. He lives with his family in Raleigh, NC and teaches at Wake Technical Community College.
An Interview with Al Maginnes by Anna Knowles and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Anna Knowles and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: As someone who uses familial interaction to play with new themes, what is the benefit of writing about your own family?
Al Maginnes: I guess the first advantage is that they are always there. They're stuck with you. But to your larger question, I think most of us tend to relate to any new information in terms of what we already know. And for many of us what we know is our family, the people around us.
So just as it's natural for me to read a story in the paper about some decision the local school board has made and wonder how that will affect my daughter, it's natural for me to interact with new information or new ideas in my poems in the same way. I should say that this is very rarely planned. In the collection I've just finished there are far fewer poems about my family and the ones that are there tend to be less literal. Most of the poems in my last collection, Inventing Constellations, were written in the two or three years right after we adopted Isabel and found our once-calm life whiplashed by change.
AK & AMK: Did you have to do any kind of research for poems like "The Definitions?" The lines "In 1788 ‘family man' was slang for a thief" and "the root of family is the Latin familia, which meant servants to a household" were unexpected and I'm curious about them. Where do those come from? How does that history work its way into the poem?
AG: I did do a bit of research for "The Definitions." I teach research in my comp classes and I'm always telling my students that Wikipedia is not an acceptable source for college-level papers, but some of these snippets come from Wikipedia. Other pieces came from another web site. I felt the need for those bits of history early on because the genesis of the poem was the passage that mentioned reading the blog that said adoptive parents are thieves. So I needed to learn something about the definition of family and where the whole concept of family came from. I was a bit surprised to learn that the notion of family is really a fairly recent invention.
AK & AMK: Tell us more about Isabel. How does she find her way into poems like "Inventing Constellations?"
AG: Isabel is the daughter my wife, Jamie, and I adopted in 2007. She was born in Guatemala in June of 2006 and we brought her home in August of 2007. I was 49 at the time and Jamie a few years younger, so we were coming to parenthood rather late and we had-or thought we had-pretty well established our lives. There's a picture Jamie took of me the morning that we were in our hotel room in Guatemala City waiting for Isabel to arrive and I'm writing in a notebook. Jamie laughed when she took it and said "That's the last poem you'll ever write," and for a long time that seemed to be true. But eventually the poems started to come again and, as they do, they reflected things that were taking place in my own life. I had sworn I would not be one of those middle aged poets who begins writing gushing poems about parenthood, but I found myself doing exactly that. The poem "Inventing Constellations" was an attempt to break away from that heart-warming kind of poem and to explore some of the real stresses that come with being a parent, especially in those early years when the child is so dependent on the parent for everything. I actually tried in several of the poems here-"Parenthood as Correspondence Course," "Parenthood as One Form of the Afterlife"-to use some black humor and unusual metaphors to explore parenthood.
AK & AMK: The poem "The Moon as Absence and Desire" carries a physical suspension, be it the moon itself or something "inevitably above us, untouched and mysterious...perfect in its distance." Would you say cosmology is an obsession of yours? How do the cosmos help define what a family is to you and how you approach it in your writing?
AG: If cosmology was really an obsession, I would learn something more about it. I like the idea that what we think of as the cosmos is really a man-made construct. The stars did not align themselves into the Big Dipper and all the other constellations. We did that.
I've always used writing to get at things I'm fascinated by but don't quite understand, so things like physics and music show up a lot. And I'm not sure I understand families. I know that with adoptive families-at least the ones we know-there are as many reasons for having adopted as there are families. I sort of thought that the adoptive families we'd meet would all be adopting for more or less the reasons we did, but that certainly is not the case. And there is a similarity there in that if the cosmos is a man-made construct, an adoptive family is also an act of will. We had to decide we wanted a child, then had to jump through a lot of hoops to make it happen. And of course, as with most of these things, once it's done, it seems like it was fated to be that way all along.
AK & AMK: Do you think the role of family is changing today? Where does poetry fit in? How, in your own family, has day to day life changed?
AG: I have no idea about the role of family. Like most of us, I'm too caught up in making sure my daughter gets to school on time, gets her homework done, and pretends to pick up her room to worry over the role of the family. Certainly the dynamic of families is a bit different. For instance, since my teaching schedule is more flexible than my wife's work schedule-Jamie runs a program for mentally ill inmates in a women's maximum security prison-so I'm the one who takes her to school, makes lunch, arranges play dates and the like. And that might answer how our day to day life has changed. There are more balls to keep in the air for sure.
Where does poetry fit in? I guess that depends on the family. Poetry has been an indispensable part of my life since my late teens, but not everyone feels that way. Sometimes if I'm reading a book of poems on the playground, someone will ask me what I'm reading. When I say "poetry," that usually ends the conversation. My daughter thinks it's kind of cool that I write poems and that I sometimes write poems about her, but I don't know how necessary poems will be for her as she grows older.
I do wish more people read poetry. I think they'd be happier.
AK & AMK: I love the lines "A light burns low and constant in our daughter's room as she sleeps. And last night we fell asleep with the lamp burning above us like an unfinished conversation...We like the idea of a light above us proving an end to the dark." Do you see these poems as a guide or an explanation of fatherhood?
AG: Maybe more like a wish for fatherhood. Fatherhood is endless and unexplainable from what I can see.
AK & AMK: Who were some of the first poets you remember reading that served as a gateway for your own poetic emergence?
AG: Oh gosh. Probably too many to name here. Gary Snyder was the poet I was really taken with when I was reading the Beat writers in my late teens. Later on, my heroes were Richard Hugo, James Dickey, and Philip Levine, and I still return to them constantly. There were a number of poets around Greenville, North Carolina, where I did my undergrad degree and several of those, Jim Rivers and Peter Makuck among others, took a lot of time with my early efforts. Donald Justice, with whom I spent one of the magical afternoons of my life talking about poems. Emily Dickinson, who I fell in love with when I was fourteen. The first time I read Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," I felt as if I was being levitated off of my bed. Levine and Charles Wright are probably my two favorite living poets. I could fill pages with this, but I'll end with naming a few current poets whose work always interests and challenges me: Frank X. Gaspar, Christopher Buckley (the California poet, not the novelist), Richard Jackson, my friends Suzanne Cleary, Sandy Longhorm. Philip Terman, and Betty Adcock. And apologies to all those I forgot.