“Washing Palms” came to me the way most poems do, from things I hear people say and from memory. In this case, the words I remembered were my father’s. Like many of my family members, my father’s language is so direct and harsh, not poetic, yet still at the same time, these caustic characteristics actually make his language very poetic. The vulgarity of measuring distance in dick lengths and the back-handed slap of “Wish in one hand, then shit in the other, and see which one fills up quickest” has always intrigued me. My father in general has always intrigued me.
For a while, I hated him because he left me and because he went to prison, but that feeling was the angst of a young man. These days I love my father—I probably never stopped loving him—and am more interested in psychoanalyzing him; with that, I suppose I am also psychoanalyzing myself. I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that I act just like him.
Honestly, my biggest fear about “Washing Palms” is that people will read the poem and think that I dislike my father. I don’t. Like most people, much of what I am and have become is because of him. Although he has hurt me in innumerable ways, he taught me lessons about life’s underbelly that helped me make sense of the world and survive in it.
Even though readers have complimented me most about the poem’s ending, the “wish in hand” lines, the words that are most poignant to me are “Save those tears. You’ll need them later.” I am not dropping some mind-boggling truth by telling you that life is hard, but it is. So this mordant warning from my father, I now realize, is one of the most honest and enduring things he has ever told me.
I think it takes a particular type of courage to tell a truth this sharp and another kind to be able to hear and accept that type of truth, and I now know that my father had that type of courage when I did not have the courage to hear it, accept it, or even love him for saying such a thing. Love, of course, is a risk, and to conquer any risk takes valor. My hope is that one day I will be as brave as my father and cleanse myself of all the animosity I hold for him.
Douglas Manuel is a Master of Fine Arts candidate at Butler University and the Managing Editor of Booth: A Journal. His work has appeared in Thoughtsmith and The Bruised Peach Press. His poem "Washing Palms" was published in issue 298.3 of the North American Review.
Photo by Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt (1878 - 1955)