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explicit family portraits


after Olivia McGowen



My father likes to tell a story about his father

How when he was younger, he almost married

Two women at the same time. He talks about this

Like it’s sitcom funny, like he just got confused

And ended up with two dates to the prom.

He likes thinking about his father trying to carry

Two conversations in two different homes,

Switching coats and forgetting his kids’ names.

He likes thinking about how it almost happened,

And the lake where his brothers swam.



My mother’s father never talked about his father,

But we know his mother left that man when he decided

To kill himself and bring the whole family with him.

He met a new woman and started a new life and new family,

Then years later smoked his car’s tailpipe like a cigarette.

Two and a half years ago my grandfather passed like a whisper. Three years ago

He met his half-brother for the first time. He might have asked

What it was like having his dad around, if not for the dementia.

What do you call two brothers who are almost as much ghosts

As the man who came between them? My great uncle

Might have told him he wasn’t missing much, if not for the haunting.



When I was born my father called me the reason he got a vasectomy,

But that didn’t fit on the bottom of the birth certificate

So he gave me his name. My mother wanted to name me

Something different, like Colton or Richard or Regret.

My parents divorced when I was three years old.

My mother packed us into her baby blue chevy and left

In the night with the clothes on her back

And two daughters and a son and a cigarette out the window.



He still likes to talk about the time he beat a Golden Gloves

Boxer in a karate match.

My father fought bodies

My father fought bodies

My father fought bodies of water just like Achilles.

                  My father the martial artist.

One time he broke a board with just three fingers.

The secret, he said, is speed.

He was supposed to fight bodies over the Pacific when he turned

Eighteen but his brother enlisted first, said the whole thing was over

The minute he signed up, Vietcong just packed it in.

                  Maybe the next one

                  Maybe the next one

                  Maybe the next one, kid.

Dad still likes to talk about all the fights he got into in high school.

My dad the schoolyard brawler. One time he got suspended. One time he

Got mad at my mother and put three fingers through a door

Without closing it but he never touched her



The court-appointed therapist said us kids don’t have to keep

Going over to his house after the custody trial.

For some reason I never stopped. I was nine years old

And my mother told me that some people might need

To be cut out of your life, even if it’s with safety scissors, that

                  Take your hands out of your pockets

                  Take your hands out of your pockets

                  Take your hands out of your pockets and please

Look at me, Jeremiah, she said

My father was drowning before I was born and that

I shouldn’t let him take me with him. One time I jumped

Off the diving board at the rec center and sank like a stone.

Mom dove in with her shoes on. My mother

The mermaid. I was born a sea sponge.



Two years ago my father taught me a way to separate dough

So that the two loaves of bread would never know

That they come from the same yeast. The secret

Is to make them stop apologizing to each other for the schism.

Fifteen years ago he taught me how to swim. A string

Of Fate can’t be severed with kid strength.



My mother’s grandfather was a bullet in transit. His sons

Were the flower stems in the barrel. My father’s father

Was the cracked foundation on which his son built his broken homes.

My father the Dauntless, then Titanic, now Nautilus. I’m still

Coughing up pool water.

         My mother the mermaid.

         My mother the mermaid.

         My mother the mermaid.

                                             My mother is a mouth

Full of scissors. My father is a cardboard cutout of a father

That came to life when I was seventeen. This poem

Is a recipe for a scrapbook I don’t have the photos to make.

My life is a story that was never meant to be

Told without apologies. My family history is an arts

And crafts fair. My hands are traitors. My harmony

Is an ocean. My future is a do-it-yourself project.

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