Raymond Henry Watten
20 August 1922–23 August 2013
Minneapolis, MN–Santa Rosa, CA
On Summit Street
across from a marble
monument, a large spray-
painted sign with his
initials in red block
letters. The background
is black. Next to the initials,
RHW, is a high contrast
image, a snapshot of him.
It is late summer, a
humid afternoon with slight
breeze. A bus goes by.
He comes out to meet it.
—from Opera—Works (1975)
I was a new arrival at the Iowa Writers Workshop, c. 1971–72. Given the kind of confessional, autobiographical, narrative poetry the workshop cared about, workshop leader Marvin Bell thought to prompt: “Write a poem about your father!” This is what I came up with. I did not return with a poem in which I was sharpening a tool behind the woodshed, wondering what to do next. The red-on-black high-contrast image appears to be a screen image for Salvador Allende, killed in the Chilean coup in 1973. My father did not represent Pinochet, but he was in his career a military officer and research doctor during the Vietnam War. He wrote a thoughtful support letter in my campaign to resist the draft, I should add. The location of the image (imagined) translates the psychogeographies of Charles Olson and Robert Smithson onto the quotidian landscape of Iowa City. Of course all such cultural references are to my own family romance. It strikes me that the season and weather described in the poem are those of today precisely, 23 August 2013, while in the poem, the bus and his emergence from the “home” of the title do not coincide. As now they just did.
Postscript (to my sister)
Here are some thoughts on the poem. I was “asked” to write about about my father but did not want to tell a story, of sorrow and redemption, as would be the usual response. I went minimal and tried to sum up my feelings about him through an image/imagined landscape. The details are all part of the construction:
Summit Street: the top of a hill, in an “established” neighborhood in Iowa City, one where professors might live. Much later (2006) a strong tornado ripped through that neighborhood, in the direction of the 1830s former inn and underground railway station I lived in at 726 Iowa Avenue. History suffuses the neighborhood, from the vantage point of that which overlooks it.
across from a marble/monument: a monument to the death an important figure; also, the “tomb” of someone as a poetic tradition; also, the “death” that is necessary for something to become literary (poets are only really read after they die; they write for eternity). This is a thumbnail image of romantic poetry and its death in the cold stone of a marble monument as a problem for poetry: how to write what is alive, in the face of mortality. The scene depicted is “across the street,” in a contrasting relation to it, life vs. death.
large spray-/painted sign: high contrast, low-tech, like a political or election poster perhaps.
initials in red block/letters: calls up the bold typography of leftist/socialist slogans; I associated this with Salvador Allende’s popular front government in Chile, and my father with Allende, though when I wrote the poem the Chilean coup had not happened yet. The poem was written about 1971 or ’72; the coup took place on 11 September 1973. In my paragraph on the poem, I distinguish Allende from Augusto Pinochet, who ordered Allende’s death. Socialist killed by fascist. I can see this as a reading of my father—the paranoid triumphed over the democrat. But this reading has to be retrospective, which is important and legitimate.
background/is black: mortality; the background for all life is death; anamorphosis.
the initials: the person is condensed into the “name of the father,” and even further condensed into his initials. An entire school of psychoanalysis theorized “the agency of the letter” as what one is concerned with in psychoanalysis.
a high contrast/image: displacement of the image into contrasting tones—good/bad, for instance; life/death.
a snapshot of him: he took a lot of pictures, some strikingly beautiful, but which by this time had become more snapshots than photography.
him: a moment. “It’s him!” Who’s he? A Christian referent in the St. Matthew’s Passion: “See him? Whom? The son of Man!” I don’t think that I was thinking in such a weighty manner. But there is “man” as a particular man vs. the symbolic order of Mankind or Humanity. “It’s him.” Just him. In a snapshot. Not a religious vision. The poem is an argument against the religious order and for a confrontation with mortality, period.
Then the last four lines of poem create the time, place, and action. It is a particular day of the year—the day we live in, the day we die in. It turns out that the day imagined was exactly like the day on which he died: late summer, a humid afternoon / with slight breeze
slight: not “a slight.” I pondered that. Not using “a” keeps the phrase ambiguous, split. There is a little breeze; there is not enough breeze. Breeze comes from motion, setting up the ending.
A bus goes by: the everyday/mortality. The bus driver will take you to your final resting place, perhaps. Don’t get on that bus! Later I questioned the bus ride that took me to Buchenwald.
He comes out to meet it: He missed the bus, this time. The image is frozen at that moment. The gap between life and death. Later he will meet the bus. But also, in our relationship, he missed the bus. I record that fact dispassionately.
The overall effect of the poem is to create an image that stands for the person—a kind of wish image. My wish is that he miss the bus and preserved in memory as in life, through the image. The poem means no harm, and leaves everything else out. But it does associate the father with mortality. Note too that all the phrases that make images are broken by enjambment with the exception of the final two lines, which are, in poetic and actual terms, “end stopped.”
And the title, “Home”: my home is everywhere and nowhere; I live in existence. All specific places, all particular times, are only wishful images in that sense.
Happy you asked. Love, Barry