Refusal to Write an Elegy
Papa, lately at night when the phone rings
raveling midnight into tatters, I freeze.
Just two days ago, once more your wife's
voice described the extension cord
tied to a joist in the basement, the round
loop hanging: "I'm making a rope." And there
were other times. The razor blade.
The ritalins, sixty-four white pills,
each a period for every year-long
sentence of your life. Your screams
punctuated my childhood nights;
your nightmares melded into fairy tales,
mga kuwento ng duwende. For others: the Grimm
Brothers. For me: Bataan, Corregidor, jungles
and nipa huts, a handsome soldier named Martin.
No dragons, no cinder-faced damsels,
only the night, pulsing with tracer fire.
Or maybe a samurai blade's insistent sheen.
One night, nearly stepping on an enemy soldier,
you poised on that teeter-totter, oblivion,
then all of you softly backed into still virgin
tracks and ran. Jungle gloom raveled by carbine
fire before and behind. You never knew if American
or Japanese bullets ripped your friend Pabling
apart, a sucking chest wound in his side.
And once, hemmed in by tanks, rifles, a ravine,
and a blazing cane brake, each of you slid
beneath the flames. Most escaped. But one
or two, were left behind, screaming.
Another time, a corporal hit by a shell
ran from you — headless and faltering.
His arms flailed like a windmill.
Papa, when you watch TV,
you hammer your fist into your thigh.
Nailing yourself to the morning. To the yellow
heart of an egg, sunny side up.
I see you. Your back is jammed up against
the bole of a tree. Brown skin, your brown
uniform chameleoning the rough bark.
The Japanese plane, a hot red sun,
spits chunks of metal strung
on wires. Beads of spouting earth
converge. At the focus,
you've clawed bark under your fingernails.
Papa. Papa. Remember, they missed you that time.
— Vince Gotera, first appeared in Zone 3 (1989).
My father, Martin Avila Gotera, served in the US Army's Philippine Scouts during WWII; he was a corporal in the 14th Engineers and he specialized in blowing up bridges. He was given a battlefield promotion to 2nd lieutenant for meritorious service. At the right is the young soldier in his US Army officer's uniform, taken in downtown San Francisco, probably in 1946.
When I was growing up, my father often told me war stories . . . I remember him doing that when I was no older than five or six, I'm guessing. These stories were very vivid to me; as I write this I can bring back visual memories that were either dreams I had from his stories or perhaps what I saw in my mind's eye as Papa would tell me those stories, again and again. Perhaps I asked to hear them as bedtime stories . . . who knows?
My father suffered from schizophrenia, surely brought on by such horrific combat experiences as those he told me about and which appear in this poem. Though he also describes schizophrenic incidents that he remembered from his earlier teenage years, so the disease had probably already manifested before his US Army service.
In any case, during the war (or immediately afterwards), Papa was diagnosed with combat fatigue (WWII lingo for what we now call posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD). All my life, Papa suffered from those symptoms now so familiar to us from Hollywood Vietnam-vet movies: frequent nightmares of war, flashbacks, paranoia, extreme depression, thoughts of suicide, etc., etc.
The poem itself goes back to my first MFA poetry workshop with David Wojahn at Indiana University in the fall of 1986. I remember that it was the second poem I submitted to the class. And it didn't fare well in workshop. But I worked on it and worked on it . . . really as a gift to Papa. In a similar vein to Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night," my entreaty to my father not to succumb to death, to awful memory, to the demons of schizophrenia.
And I'm happy to say that now, almost twenty years after Papa died of illness, not of suicide, the poem still holds up. I put it in my 2003 chapbook Ghost Wars as well as in Fighting Kite (2007). This recent title is my elegy for Papa, for Martin Avila Gotera . . . a book-length elegy that completes the cycle begun by my earlier "Refusal to Write an Elegy." Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! Amen.