Sunday, April 5, 2009

In his Inky Apron, My Father Smiles

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been posting and commenting on my poems reprinted by editor Shawn Wong in the 1996 textbook Asian American Literature. The immediate occasion for these blog posts, as I have mentioned previously, is that I was contacted through Facebook by members of an Asian American Lit class at the University of Georgia, and we have been discussing these poems online. At about the same time, interestingly, my own Asian American Lit class at the University of Northern Iowa reached these poems in our ongoing course schedule. Here, then, is the last of the five poems from Shawn Wong's textbook:

Dance of the Letters

My father, in a 1956 gray suit,
had the jungle in his tie,
a macaw on Kelly green.
But today is Saturday, no briefs
to prepare, and he's in a T-shirt.

I sit on his lap with my ABC
Golden Book,
and he orders the letters
to dance. The A prancing red
as an apple, the E a lumbering elephant,
the C chased by the D while the sly F

is snickering in his russet fur coat.
My mother says my breakthrough
was the M somersaulting into a W.
Not a mouse transformed into a wallaby
at all, but sounds that we can see.

Later, my father trots me out
to the living room like a trained Z.
Not yet four, I read newspaper headlines
out loud for Tito Juanito and Tita Naty
or for anyone who drops in.

Six years later, I am that boy
in a black Giants cap, intertwining orange
letters S and F, carrying my father's
forgotten lunch to the catacombs
of the UCSF Medical Center,

and I love the hallway cool before the swirling
heat from the Print Shop door.
In his inky apron, my father smiles,
but his eyes are tired. The night before,
I pulled the pillow over my head, while he

argued with my mother
till 2 A.M. about that old double bind:
a rule to keep American citizens from
practicing law in the Philippines.
His University of Manila

law degree made useless.
But California's just as bad.
"You can't work in your goddamn
profession stateside either!" he shouts.
"Some land of opportunity."

There in the shimmer of the Print Shop, I can't
understand his bitterness. I savor
the stacatto sounds. He leans
into the noise of huge machines, putting
vowels and consonants into neat stacks.


— Vince Gotera, first appeared in Ploughshares (1989).
Reprinted in Asian American Literature: A Brief
Introduction and Anthology
(1996). Appeared also
in Fighting Kite (2007).

Readers of this poem often say it's about "the making of the artist." Not quite like James Joyce though, I'd say — more like "the making of the artist as a young preschooler." My father did train me for amazing feats, of sorts. He worked with me on the alphabet at age two or three so that I was reading before I was four years old. When I was about six, he decided he would make me into a chess Grandmaster. So every day, we would drill on the chessboard, sometimes for hours. The King's Gambit. The Sicilian Defense. The Ruy Lopez Opening. (I only now learned, via Google, that there's an interesting irony here because the Philippines was named after King Philip not by Magellan, it turns out, but by the Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos. Fancy that. Ruy Lopez. I wonder if my father knew that.)

We would replay famous chess games, such as the 1956 so-called "Game of the Century" in which chess master Donald Byrne lost to 13-year-old Bobby Fischer; as we duplicated the moves in these replayed games, Papa would have me analyze what made each move weak or strong. I suppose Papa was probably glad he taught me to read early, because he had me begin reading chess strategy manuals at this time. We spent a lot of time with endgame puzzles and checkmate tactics. (The only result of this training is that I ultimately lost my love for chess and now play only seldom.)

Back to the poem . . . I have always thought that this poem is not about me (as those who call it a "making of the artist" may assert) but rather about my father. His strong ambition for himself, later deflected to/through me. His dogged andeavors and planning, culminating with earning his law degree. His disappointment at the Philippines enacting a law to prevent American lawyers from practicing there (since Papa was a naturalized US citizen). His even deeper disappointment that he was also not able to be lawyer in his beloved America; to pass the bar in California, he would have had to go back to school, but since he was already a lawyer, he felt that such schooling would be below him. His further bitter disappointments as he worked jobs in the US that he felt were similarly beneath him: selling encyclopedias door-to-door, selling dress shirts at a department store, working as an offset printer running enormous printing presses. (Some of this is also described in the autobiography started on this blog.)

Of his many jobs, the one I remember fondly was when he worked in a print shop. Ten years old, I loved the gigantic machines Papa ran, the sharp smell of the ink, the thunderous noise in the shop when the presses were turning. Probably the only way he could have been more heroic to me was if he ran a bulldozer or earth mover on a construction site.

Needless to say, he was keenly disappointed in himself for not being a lawyer, for having to work under supervisors he felt were intellectually inferior to him, etc. Today though, I gotta say, when I go to a print shop for my work as a magazine editor, all that love for Papa comes flooding back when I smell that ink-laden air, hear the thudding whirr of the presses. I don't think Papa ever knew how much I idolized his printing-press work. Though I suppose, even after the fact, that would not have been sufficient consolation for his workaday suffering.

In terms of craft, nothing much jumps out at me that I haven't already discussed at length vis-à-vis other poems, except for the emphasis here on the letters of the alphabet. Not only in the earlier section when the child speaker is learning the magic of reading, but also the letter-based logo on the ten-year-old child's ball cap, the UCSF of Papa's work (University of California, San Francisco), and the single numeral "2" followed by the letters "A.M." And finally of course, the father's work with letters — vowels and consonants &mdash making Papa a sort of primal man of letters, though he would not have appreciated that complexion in the least.

To round out Papa's story, he eventually did find work that suited him. As I have noted in various posts here, my father was a WWII veteran who had deep concern for veteran's issues. Papa ultimately found an occupation, not just a job, as a Contact Representative for the Veterans Administration; he assisted veterans with all sorts of problems: pensions, health care, service-connected disabilities, etc. Although this was not working with the law, the job was sometimes legalistic, and more importantly Papa felt great satisfaction in being of service to other veterans. So this is a story with a happy ending.

And I bet my father did know about that Ruy Lopez who named the Philippines. Papa was a heck of a smart guy.

NOTE: the graphic above is the cover image from the Wikijunior Animal Alphabet.

Oh, also, there was one small change between the
Ploughshares and textbook version and the one above (same as in Fighting Kite): the earlier "two a.m." was changed to "2 A.M." to coincide with customary usage (numeral with A.M. or P.M. in small caps) as well as to include yet one more single-character entity to match the alphabet letters throughout the poem.

Added 7 April 2009: a slide show of this poem. Enjoy!


Brandon said...

What an intriguing story.

Vince Gotera said...

Hi, Brandon! Thanks for your comment. I appreciate it. Take good care. --Vince

Okir said...

This is wonderful, Vince; the letters and animals reminding me of kindergarten learning ABCs, and of my brief vocation as a calligrapher. Interesting to see also how the music plays out differently than in my slideshow, which was more...expressionistic, I guess you could say...

--Jean v.

Vince Gotera said...

Hi, Jean! Thanks a lot. I had no idea you had been a calligrapher. Me too. The cool thing about your slideshow was that it (re)cycled beautifully. Mine didn't so well. --Vince

Okir said...

You too? I don't run into many calligraphers, or ex-calligraphers! It really requires an obsessive personality! Yay for obsessives!

Vince Gotera said...

Jean, sorry. I missed your comment. Yes, obsessive ... that's me! Ha ha. I wish I still had time to practice calligraphy. As you know, it takes a lot of practice.

Generic Viagra said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
lady gaga halloween costume said...

This is a great site, full of great content lady gaga halloween costume ideas

Christine Durietz said...

I like this line: "My father, in a 1956 gray suit,
had the jungle in his tie,
a macaw on Kelly green."

Why? Because it brings up imagery of times past. We can never go back, but the imagery of very young times seems to stay with us for as long as we live. At least, as far as I can see...

13th floor elevators (1) 3d (1) 9/11 (3) a schneider (1) abecedarian (6) acrostic (2) adelaide crapsey (1) african american (1) aids (1) al robles (2) alberta turner (1) alex esclamado (1) alexander chen (1) alexandra bissell (1) alexandrines (1) alliteration (2) alphabet (1) alphabet poem (2) altered books (1) altered pages (2) amanda blue gotera (6) amelia blue gotera (3) american gothic (1) amok (1) amy lowell (1) anacreon (1) anacreontics (1) anaphora (1) andrea boltwood (19) andrew davidson (1) andrew marvell (1) andrew oldham (1) angelina jolie (1) angels (1) animation (1) anna montgomery (3) anne reynolds (1) annie e. existence (1) annie finch (1) anny ballardini (1) anti- (1) antonio taguba (2) aprille (1) art (7) arturo islas (1) ash wednesday (1) asian american (4) assonance (1) astronomy (2) aswang (9) aswang wars (1) atlanta rhythm section (1) balato (1) ballad (1) barack obama (7) barbara jane reyes (1) barry a. morris (1) bass (2) bataan (5) becca andrea (1) beetle (2) belinda subraman (2) beowulf (1) best american poetry (1) bible (1) bill clinton (1) billy collins (2) blank verse (4) bob boynton (1) body farm (1) bolo (1) bongbong marcos (3) brian brodeur (2) bruce johnson (1) bruce niedt (2) buddah moskowitz (2) burns stanza (1) callaloo (1) candida fajardo gotera (5) cardinal sin (1) carlos bulosan (1) carlos santana (1) carmina figurata (1) carolina matsumura gotera (1) caroline klocksiem (1) carrie arizona (3) carrieola (3) carriezona (1) catherine childress pritchard (1) catherine pritchard childress (35) catullus (1) cebu (1) cecilia manguerra brainard (1) cedar falls (6) cedar falls public library (1) charles a hogan (2) chess (1) childhood (1) children's poetry (1) China (1) chorus of glories (1) chris durietz (1) christmas (2) chuck pahlaniuk (1) cinquain (1) civil rights (1) clarice (1) classics iv (1) cleave hay(na)ku (2) clerihews (2) cliché (1) computers (1) concreteness (1) consonance (4) cory aquino (2) couplet (5) couplet quatrains (1) crab (1) craft (5) creative nonfiction (1) crewrt-l (1) crucifixion (1) curtal sonnet (6) dactyls (1) daily palette (1) damián ortega (1) danielle filas (1) dante (4) dashiki (1) david foster wallace (1) david kopaska-merkel (1) david wojahn (1) de jackson (2) denise duhamel (1) deviantART (2) dick powell (1) diction (1) didactic cinquain (1) dinosaur (2) disaster relief (1) divine comedy (1) dodecasyllables (1) doggerel (2) doggie diner (1) don johnson (1) donald trump (1) dr who (3) dr. seuss (1) draft (2) dragon (1) dragonfly (17) dreams & nightmares (1) drug addiction (1) drums (1) dusty springfield (1) e e cummings (1) e-book (1) earth day (1) ebay (2) ecopoetry (1) ed hill (1) edgar allan poe (2) edgar rice burroughs (1) editing (1) eileen tabios (6) ekphrasis (2) election (2) elegy (1) elizabeth alexander (2) elizabeth bishop (2) elvis presley (1) emily dickinson (5) emma trelles (1) end-stop (3) english sonnet (1) enita meadows (1) enjambment (5) enola gay (1) environment (1) erasure poetry (9) erin mcreynolds (4) ernest lawrence thayer (1) exxon valdez oil spill (1) f. scott fitzgerald (1) facebook (3) family (4) fantasy (1) fashion (1) ferdinand magellan (1) ferdinand marcos (5) fib (1) fiction (3) fiera lingue (1) fighting kite (4) filipino (language) (1) filipino americans (6) filipino poetry (1) filipino veterans equity (3) filipinos (5) film (3) final thursday reading series (2) flannery o'connor (3) flute (1) fortune cookie (1) found poem (1) found poetry (6) found poetry review (2) fourteeners (1) frank frazetta (1) fred unwin (1) free verse (1) fructuosa gotera (1) fyodor dostoevsky (1) gabriel garcía márquez (1) gambling (1) garrett hongo (1) gary kelley (1) gawain (1) genre (1) george w. bush (1) gerard manley hopkins (8) ghazal (1) ghost wars (5) ghosts of a low moon (1) gogol bordello (1) golden shovel (3) goodreads (1) google (1) gotera (1) grace kelly (1) grant tracey (1) grant wood (1) greek mythology (1) gregory k pincus (1) griffin lit (1) grimm (1) grinnell college (2) growing up (1) growing up filipino (2) guest blogger (1) guillaume appolinaire (1) guitar (9) gulf war (1) gustave doré (3) guy de maupassant (1) gwendolyn brooks (2) gypsy art show (1) gypsy punk (1) hades (1) haiku (16) haiku sonnet (3) hart crane (1) hawak kamay (1) hay(na)ku (16) hay(na)ku sonnet (8) header (1) hearst center for the arts (2) heirloom (1) herman melville (1) hey joe (1) hiroshima (1) hiv here & now (1) homer (1) how a poem happens (2) humboldt state university (1) humor (1) iain m. banks (1) iamb (1) ian parks (1) ibanez (1) imagery (1) imelda marcos (4) immigrants (1) imogen heap (1) indiana university (1) ink! (1) insect (2) insects (1) international hotel (1) interview (3) introduction (2) iowa (2) iran (1) iran-iraq war (1) irving levinson (1) italian bicycle (1) italian sonnet (2) ivania velez (2) j. d. schraffenberger (4) j. i. kleinberg (3) j. k. rowling (1) jack horner (2) jack kerouac (1) jack p nantell (1) james brown (1) james gorman (2) jan d. hodges (1) japan (1) jasmine dreame wagner (1) jeanette winterson (1) jedediah dougherty (1) jedediah kurth (31) jennifer bullis (1) jesse graves (1) jessica hagedorn (1) jessica mchugh (2) jim daniels (1) jim hall (1) jim hiduke (1) jim o'loughlin (1) jim simmerman (1) jimi hendrix (2) jimmy fallon (1) joan osborne (1) joe mcnally (1) john barth (1) john charles lawrence (2) john clare (1) john donne (1) john mccain (1) john welsh iii (2) joseph solo (1) josh hamzehee (1) joyce kilmer (1) justine wagner (1) kampilan (1) kathleen ann lawrence (1) kathy reichs (1) keith welsh (1) kelly cherry (1) kenning (1) kennings poem (3) kim groninga (1) king arthur (1) king tut (1) kumadre (1) kumpadre (1) kurt vonnegut (1) kyell gold (1) landays (1) lapu-lapu (1) lapwing publications (1) laurie kolp (2) les paul (1) leslie kebschull (1) library (1) library of congress (2) limerick (2) linda parsons marion (1) linda sue grimes (2) lineation (5) linked haiku (3) list poem (1) little brown brother (1) little free libraries (3) lost (tv) (1) louise glück (1) luis buñuel (1) lydia lunch (1) machismo (1) magazines (1) mah jong (1) man ray (1) manananggal (2) manong (3) margaret atwood (1) maria fleuette deguzman (1) marianne moore (1) marilyn cavicchia (1) marilyn hacker (1) mark jarman (1) marriage (1) martin avila gotera (16) martin luther king jr. (1) marty gotera (5) marty mcgoey (1) mary ann blue gotera (6) mary biddinger (1) mary roberts rinehart award (1) mary shelley (1) matchbook (1) maura stanton (1) maureen thorson (146) meena rose (3) megan hippler (1) melina blue gotera (3) mental illness (1) meter (7) mfa (2) michael heffernan (2) michael martone (2) michael ondaatje (1) michael shermer (2) michael spence (1) michelle obama (1) middle witch (1) mirror northwest (1) misky (1) molossus (1) monkey (1) morel mushrooms (2) mushroom hunting (1) music (3) muslim (1) my custom writer blog (1) myth (1) mythology (3) nagasaki (1) naked blonde writer (1) naked girls reading (1) naked novelist (1) napowrimo (153) narrative (2) natalya st. clair (1) nathan dahlhauser (1) nathaniel hawthorne (1) national geographic (3) national poetry month (154) native american (1) neil gaiman (2) neoformalism (1) New Formalists (1) New York School (1) nick carbó (3) ninang (1) north american review (7) north american review blog (2) of books and such (1) of this and such (1) ottava rima (2) oulipo (1) pablo picasso (2) pacific crossing (1) padre timoteo gotera (1) painting (1) palestinian american (1) palindrome (1) palinode (1) palmer hall (1) pantoum (1) paradelle (2) paranormal (1) parkersburg iowa (1) parody (3) parol (1) pastoral poetry (1) pat bertram (2) pat martin (1) paula berinstein (1) pause for the cause (2) pca/aca (1) peace (2) peace of mind band (1) pecan grove press (2) pepito gotera (1) percy bysshe shelley (2) performance poetry (1) persephone (1) persona phone (1) peter padua (1) petrarch (1) petrarchan sonnet (8) philip larkin (1) philippine news (1) philippine scouts (6) philippine-american war (1) philippines (8) phish (1) pinoy (1) pinoy poetics (1) pixie lott (1) podcast (1) podcasts (3) poem-a-day challenge (151) poetics (6) poetry (5) poetry imitation (1) poetry international (1) poetry reading (4) poets against (the) war (2) pop culture (2) prejudice (1) presidio of san francisco (1) prince (2) princess grace foundation (1) promotion (1) prose poem (3) ptsd (2) puppini sisters (1) puptent poets (2) pyrrhic (1) quatrain (3) r.e.m. (1) rachel morgan (2) racism (1) rainer maria rilke (1) rap (1) rattle (1) ray fajardo (1) reggie lee (1) rembrandt (1) ren powell (1) reviews (1) revision (1) rhyme (8) rhysling awards (3) rhythm (1) richard fay (1) richard hugo (1) rick griffin (1) rime (1) rippled mirror hay(na)ku (1) robert bly (1) robert frost (2) robert fulghum (1) robert j christenson (1) robert lee brewer (151) robert mezey (1) robert neville (1) robert zemeckis (1) rock and roll (2) roger zelazny (1) ron kowit (1) ronald wallace (2) rondeau (1) ross gay (1) rubaiyat (1) rubaiyat sonnet (1) run-d.m.c. (1) saade mustafa (1) salt publishing (1) salvador dali (1) san francisco (8) sandra cisneros (1) santa claus (1) santana (1) sapphics (1) sarah deppe (1) sarah palin (1) sarah smith (26) satan (1) sayaka alessandra (1) schizophrenia (1) science fiction (1) science fiction poetry association (1) science friction (1) scifaiku (1) scott walker (1) screaming monkeys (1) scripture (1) sculpture (1) sena jeter naslund (1) senryu (3) sestina (6) sevenling (1) shadorma (1) shaindel beers (2) shakespearean sonnet (1) sharon olds (1) shawn wong (1) shiites or shia (1) sidney bechet (1) skateboard (1) skylaar amann (1) slant rhyme (5) slide shows (1) small fires press (1) sniper (1) somersault abecedarian (1) sonnet (28) sonnetina (3) soul (1) southeast asian american (1) specificity (1) speculative poetry (1) spiraling abecedarian (1) spondee (1) spooky (1) st. patrick's day (1) stanford university (1) stanley meltzoff (1) stanza (1) stars and stripes (2) stereogram (1) steve hazlewood (1) stevie nicks (1) stone canoe (1) sue boynton (1) suite101 (2) sunflowers (1) surges (1) susan l. chast (1) syllabics (1) sylvia plath (1) syzygy poetry journal (2) t. m. sandrock (1) t. s. eliot (2) tanka (1) tarzan (1) teaching creative writing (2) ted kooser (1) term paper mill (1) terrance hayes (1) terza rima (9) terza rima haiku sonnet (7) terzaiku sonnet (4) terzanelle (1) the byrds (1) thomas alan holmes (90) thomas crofts (4) thomas faivre-duboz (1) thunderstorm (1) thurifer (1) tiger (1) tilly the laughing housewife (1) time travel (1) tom perrotta (1) tom petty (1) tom phillips (1) toni morrison (2) tornado (1) translation (2) translitic (3) tribute in light (1) trickster (1) triolet (1) triskaidekaphobia (1) tritina (1) trochee (1) tucson (1) typhoon haiyan (1) typhoon yolanda (1) university of northern iowa (6) us army (7) vampire (2) ven batista (29) verses typhoon yolanda (1) veterans' day (2) via dolorosa (1) video poetry (6) vietnam war (4) viktor vasnetsov (1) villanelle (1) vince del monte (1) vincent van gogh (1) virgil wren (1) virtual blog tour (1) visual poetry (3) vladimir putin (1) volkswagen (1) w. somerset maugham (1) wallace stevens (3) walt mcdonald (1) walt whitman (3) war (7) war in afghanistan (2) war in iraq (2) wartburg college (1) waterloo (1) whypoetrymatters (1) wile e. coyote (1) wilfred owen (1) william blake (1) william carlos williams (1) william f tout (1) william gibson (1) william oandasan (1) william shakespeare (2) wind (1) winter (1) women's art (1) wooster review (1) writing (1) writing away retreats (1) writing show (1) wwii (6) young adult (1) yusef komunyakaa (6) zone 3 (1)