Remembering a Father’s Tenderness

Georges de la Tour, "Joseph and Jesus"

Georges de la Tour, “Joseph the Carpenter”

Father’s Day

Here’s a lovely Li-Young Lee poem for Father’s Day. Not all of Lee’s poems about his father are positive and one finds even in this one a hint of violence, a hand that could be raised to discipline. But that makes the tenderness of this remembered act even more poignant. The poet recalls a moment when his father removed a splinter from his hand and he draws on that remembered tenderness when, years later, he himself removes a splinter from his wife’s hand.

What he remembers is not the story that his father told to distract his attention but the sound of his father’s voice, “a well of dark water, a prayer.” Something precious was planted deep within him at that time:

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.

Now, as he works to removed his wife’s splinter, he can see that the long-ago planting has yielded a rich harvest. Life at its most meaningful is not made up of loud and dramatic moments—the poet imagines overdramatizing his encounter with the splinter—but of tiny acts of quiet concern, of silver tears and tiny flames. The tenderness of the boy’s thank you is reflected in his kiss, which is on a par with his father’s act. He was given this gift to keep and now he is passing it on to those he loves.

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.
 
I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.
 
Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.
 
Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,

Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does

when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

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  • sue

    Maybe because last week was Pentecost, but in some way the line, ‘ the flames of discipline’, coupled with the planting image, reminded me of the gift of the Spirit. Odd… Which, although it came with a dramatic flourish, often shows up in small acts if tenderness.

  • Robin Bates

    What a wonderful association, Sue! I’m also put in mind of God’s “still small voice.” Because I’m on the road, I can’t look through my Li-Young Lee to see if this is a theme in his works.


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