Feature: “Father”

By Michael Ryan

Like almost every other MFA graduate then and since, I couldn’t get a teaching job in 1972 after I earned my degree. My teachers—Marvin Bell and Donald Justice—kindly offered to let me stay and work on The Iowa Review if I enrolled in the PhD program and thereby qualified for graduate student support. So I did. The magazine was staffed mostly by workshop students like me and to entertain ourselves we tacked on the office bulletin board particularly psychotic submission cover letters.

My favorite was a five-page letter handwritten in red ink whose salutation was “Fuck you, Iowa Review Pig” and went on from there with further compliments about the quality of our magazine and our excellent judgment concerning previous submissions that we had declined to publish. I’d go into the office a couple afternoons a week and screen poems. There were a mountain of them (the magazine was already getting thousands of submissions a year). After a few weeks of this, I developed the skill to reject poems based on cover letters ranging from the aforementioned “Fuck you, Iowa Review Pig” to “I enclose some Christmas verses my pastor enjoyed so much.”

I still remember opening an envelope that contained no cover letter at all and this poem:

I sat on my stool
in the dark
a plane of light
from the cracked door
fell across my face
like a burn
in the next room
my father was beating
my mother to death
he kicked her until
she cried blood
and then he kicked her
until she came down
with a coma
and then he kicked her until
he just couldn’t
kick her no more
he came in to see me
and put his hand on
my shoulder listen
I want you to kill
a man for me
I stood up he shoved me
back sit down I’ll
give you a hundred
dollars what do you
say I said well
who is it
here’s a piece of paper
with the man’s name
kill him I’ll give you
a hundred dollars
I opened the paper my name
was on it I turned
it over to see if
there was an alternate
what is this I said
some kind of goddam
joke I never joke
about money
he said

Ralph Dickey 

I had never heard of the poet, but the poem blew me away. It still does. I’ve used it in every poetry workshop I’ve taught since. There’s plenty to learn from it: the nightmare drama seen through a “transparent plate-glassy style” (in Whitman’s characterization of his own style); the abundance of simple noun-verb constructions and paucity of modifiers that allow the charged scene to come through unimpeded and unqualified (“cracked” is the only descriptive adjective); the absence of punctuation that shades the organizational boundaries of grammar and makes the reader participate to parse the sentences; the shape of the story, where it begins and ends, and how much space and emphasis is given to each of its parts. At the end of our discussion, I ask my students, “Do you think this really happened?” The best ones always answer: no and yes (in that order). No, because the events, their sequence, and the dialogue are not likely to have happened as portrayed, but yes—absolutely yes—they could and do happen in nightmare, in the brutalized psyche of a son who has as a result lost his own moral compass (“I said well/ who is it”). The implicit self-indictment of the speaker is the essential touch that makes the poem. In this reality no one escapes.

Aristotle said in the Poetics, “It does not matter in the least that it was so, only that it might be so.” “Father” not only might be so, it is so in the hell it so vividly dramatizes. The reader’s experience of the poem trumps the experience the poem refers to. A poem can be made to be an experience instead of referring to one, which is precisely how Dickinson says she knows poetry in her famous remark to Higginson: “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way.” For me, there wasn’t any other way in 1972 when I first read Ralph Dickey’s poem and there still isn’t now.

Ralph Dickey, as it turns out, was an African-American who earned his MFA at Iowa only a few years before I did. He killed himself only a few months after he sent his poem to The Iowa Review. After his death, Michael Harper gathered Dickey’s best poems into a chapbook called Leaving Eden, published by Bonewhistle Press in 1974. It has long been out of print. Philip Schultz’s poem entitled “The Real Reason” contains more biographical information about his friend Ralph Dickey than any other source available on the web. Dickey is referred to as “R” in Schultz’s poem. I don’t know how much of it is true.

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