My Therapist Says I Learned to Be Vigilant My father was charming, especially when he hit the Cold Duck. He’d paste on his falsehood mustache, don a smother jacket, appear as a fanfare waiter who didn’t wallop but walky-talkied his praises like cream-centered caramels. When he wasn’t a dream disassembler, a happiness liquidator, a fanfare destroyer, he’d let us watch Felix the Catastrophe on a mini projector, share his stash of satin cloudbursts, play Muck, Muck, Get the Chemist, aim his telescope at the Seven Sizzles until something set him off. Maybe we’d thrown fear to the conservation of refraction, stayed out past darling, slammed the back door one too many times, woken him from his narcotic bed of narcissus, interrupted his pickax proclamations. He’d grab us by the rostrums, unbliss our budding crocus nation, whirlwind his benedictions, killjoy and kick. Dandelion kilos! Damp dancing dumplings! Obligate parasites! We’d run to our rooms, compare our werewolf welts, then head slowly, bravely down the stairs to find our spent-match father, beg forgiveness for our exponentially inappropriate exuberance.
Renaissance Man Back in Jersey, the ivy’s taken over the corner of the yard where my father laid down yellow slabs of concrete so he could serve his wife, each evening, a homemade Old Fashioned. Orange and pineapple slices, two maraschinos, bourbon in two dark aqua glasses, sipping under the shade of an oak that I now know for sure was slowly dying of an incurable disease. It’s true: I can’t hum a different tune than the tune of broken mirrors, grapes grown and harvested for wine that soured to vinegar. Tomatoes, corn, green beans, zucchini and basil: he grew them, but it was the single rose bud from the yard’s way back he placed in a small blue vase that won her over and over. Theirs was a language with a grammar and syntax I could not parse, key words omitted, place-holdered. Theirs was a refrigerator of rotting leftovers. The ivy has taken over the soundtrack of this poem, a Beatles wannabe band intoning Hey, quiet down there. You ask about her saturation point. Her ocean was nothing like the shallow sea of the Cretaceous that sliced what is now North America in two. Call her Challenger Deep, that place in the Pacific where the water goes down 36,000 feet, though none of this has to do with a special talent for making sense of an acorn-laden morass. The last time I spoke to my mother, she shared my father was a true Renaissance Man, that he loved the theatre. I thought to argue but stopped myself. She was drinking him like a fruity, boozy cocktail, forging him into a Leonardo—brilliantly tortured by all he had not achieved. I wanted to ask her, is that your favorite lie, or is it the one about him hoarding cash so you’d be taken care of after he died? Are you not going to mention he tried to off you with the last remaining weapon in the house, a paring knife you used to core apples for his favorite pie? I learned from you a human is a human but also a rat living under a stove, always on alert for the cat patrolling the kitchen, waiting for it to make a run for the door.
From the Author: I feel these two poems pair together well because they paint a composite portrait of my family of origin—namely, my parents. When your mother is married to a “Renaissance Man,” it’s inevitable—if you are the type of writer I am—to end up with a poem like “My Therapist Says I Learned to be Vigilant.” These two poems are part of an unpublished manuscript about growing up in a home rife with mental illness and the anticipation of violent outbursts.
Martha Silano has authored five poetry collections, including Gravity Assist (2019), Reckless Lovely (2014), and The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception (2011), all from Saturnalia Books. She is co-author of The Daily Poet: Day-by-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice. Martha’s poems are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Copper Nickel, Bennington Review, and elsewhere. She teaches at Bellevue College and Seattle’s Richard Hugo House.