This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway for the sixth time. The conference combines discussion of craft, of teaching, of generating new work, and of workshopping with accomplished leaders. I drafted some new poems and had the opportunity to work with the amazing Tony Hoagland, both in workshop and in a discussion group.
One of the poems up for the discussion this weekend was by a poet unfamiliar to me, Richard Berlin. (Visit his website here.) The poem is called “How JFK Killed My Father” from his book of the same name:
How JFK Killed My Father
It was at a time when men wore fedoras
banded on the crown, each band with a feather
tucked into a bow, and inside,
sweat bands carved from calf skins
with their sweet smell of animal and earth.
I remember the photo over my grandfather’s desk,
a sepia toned panorama shot
from his ninth floor factory window,
Broadway below a surge of ticker-tape
and hats tossed in the air for FDR,
hats pouring into the street, hats
waved in exaltation, hats
taking off like America.
After two war-time winters in Greenland,
my father came home, hat in hand,
and bought the sweat band business,
made it grow like his young family, presidents
and hopefuls motorcading down Broadway:
Truman in a Scala wool Hamburg,
Ike’s bald head steamed in fur felt,
Stevenson’s ideals lost in the glory
of a two-inch brimmed Stetson.
But when thick-haired Kennedy
rode top-down and bare-headed,
men all over America took off their hats
in salute, in praise and imitation,
flung them into the street forever.
Hat factories closed quiet as prayer books,
and loss lingered in my father’s guts
like unswept garbage after a big parade.
Years later, yarmulke on my head,
they asked me to view him in his coffin.
I can still see his face shaved smooth as calf skin,
his dark suit, crisp white shirt and tie,
how I laughed that they dressed him for eternity
without a hat. And I can still hear
the old men murmur in the graveyard,
Kennedy did it to him,
fedoras held close to their leathered hearts.
This poem’s specificity (all of the hats of the presidents) and repetition of the hats in the description of the photograph are wonderful examples of the adage of “image, image, image” that I mentioned last week. Here the images stress the special significance of hats in a different time, and they provide a frame for the poet to create an elegy for his father. It is one of the most unique elegies I have read with the extension of the object’s importance making its purpose clear in a very subtle way.
If you want to write, choose an object that is significant to someone in your life. (This does not have to be elegy.) It could be your father’s chair, your brother’s baseball cards, your son’s collection of Star Wars figurines. Use that object as a controlling image in a poem about that person.