In honor of W.S. Merwin, the new poet laureate of the United States, I taped this poem to a trashbin in a small garden area of an outlet shopping mall. I wasn’t mocking Merwin or the office. It was just that on a blindingly bright day (oh why was I wasting it at the outlets?) the side of the trashcan was the only place with enough shade to get a decent close-up.
I was attracted to this poem because at the outset it was so simple to understand, a trait I like in poetry more than people. The language is straightforward. No fancy words and not a single metaphor. And it’s written in dialogue, the most reader-friendly form of writing around.
But the more time I spend with “Yesterday,” the more complicated it becomes. The two principal speakers, the I of the poem’s narrator and the I of the older friend as he narrates his own story, can get convoluted. Take the first line: “My friend says I was not a good son.” The sentence can be read two ways. It could be a direct quote, as in, My friends says, “I was not a good son” or it could be a paraphrased accusation: My friend says (that) I was not a good son. The meaning is cleared up in the next few lines, but the reader is disoriented from the get-go.
Merwin could have made this poem a whole lot easier if he used some darn quotation marks, but how different a poem it would be with them. The confusion of the I’s shows how the narrator shares his friend’s guilt over neglecting a father. Identifying who the I is is further complicated by the addition of a conversation within the conversation. There are actually four speakers: the poem’s narrator, the friend in the present moment, the friend’s father, and the friend in the past when his father was still alive. To track the identity of the speakers, the reader has to follow the carefully constructed line breaks, the white space, the verb tenses, and the verbal tics of each speaker.
Is the poem’s narrator giving his friend the kind of half-attention that the friend gave his father? His responses to his friend’s story seem rote and distracted (oh yes and I understand). Except for the part where he remembers his father’s cold hand, he seems as distanced from the friend’s conversation as the friend was from his father. The friend is older than the speaker, suggesting the father-son dynamic is repeated in the friendship. At one point, the speaker even looks out the window, just as the friend looked at his watch while his father was speaking. Both gestures signal the desire to be elsewhere.
There’s a whole culture of emotional disengagement here that struck me as distinctly male. The fathers and sons feel deeply but are unwilling to open up. Come on, fellas, I thought, only connect! Unfortunately E.M. Forster stepped aside for Harry Chapin, and I started humming “Cat’s in the Cradle.” In both Merwin’s poem and Chapin’s dreary song there’s a cycle of fathers and sons failing each other. The desire for closeness never happens to both at the same time, and men’s lives are full of regret for missed intimacy.
But as I thought about it, I realized this emotional laziness or fear or whatever and wherever it comes from is not limited to the male sex. I could write my own poem that begins, “I was not a good daughter.” When I visited my father in his last year, all he wanted was for me to sit in the living room with him and listen to him tell me whatever was on his mind—his musings on politics, science, and religion, his three main interests. “When you’ve got a minute,” he’d call to me as I busied myself in the kitchen. A minute. That’s all he asked for.
Finally I would settle on the couch, legs crossed, arms crossed, thinking of the other things I needed to do. He’d talk in his weakened voice, and as he did, he’d look at his hands, flipping them from palm side to nail side. He had macular degeneration and could hardly see his hands, but perhaps this was a habit of old to give him the air of thoughtful speculation. I had never noticed it before. Now I could hardly stand it. When I would sit with him, everything in me was burbling up wanting to run away. A fault of mine. A sin. What I can’t undo.
I find this poem remarkable. It reads like a slacker poem, idle, aimless and affectless. But it lurks in the back of my head, sharp and knowing.