~This poem previously appeared in Alimentum (2010).
Contest of Wills
Unwilling to eat the pea soup,
I sat at the kitchen table facing my father,
who, at thirty-five, was more powerful
than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings
at a single bound.
I tried sobbing, my head bobbing
pitifully over my shallow chest; but inexorably,
he continued to read the Chicago Sun Times.
Our wills and the soup between us petrified,
the ham pieces becoming aggregates
for geologists to discover ages hence
while unearthing the ancient Windy City,
and discovering two perfectly preserved figures
of father and son sitting at a table
with a single spoon and common bowl between them.
And, as we contested, Hyakutake streaked across the night sky,
The Millennium turned, The Second Coming came and went,
and the Chicago Cubs won The World Series.
The universal clock continued to tick away:
eleven, twelve, one a.m.,
when suddenly, my father’s head dipped.
Our eyes met. Resigned, yet undefeated,
he said, “Get to bed.”
Old enough now to be father to the man,
I rose silently, and passing behind his chair,
gently trailed my fingers across his back.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEM
In 1989, I was blessed with attending the New England’s Writer’s Conference in Boston, where I visited with John Updike. He told the group that he wrote 3-5 pages a day, or 3-5 hours, whichever came first; the theory being that if a writer got 3-5 good pages in half a day, it was enough work; and if not, it wouldn’t happen that day. He was a great inspiration, and I practiced that regimen for a number of years, turning out more work than I could have imagined. His advice seems to be true for me. Also, I have always believed in the Muse, and taught so for 30 years as an English teacher. When the Muse sings to me, I try to listen.
Many years ago John Ciardi, a great poet and essayist, wrote, “Poems are where you find them.” It’s like panning for gold. You look for material, seeking the bright nugget in the gravel, and it is only by pawing through that you find it.
“Contest of Wills” happened to me and my father. Even today, at 72 years old, though he has been gone since 1969, it remains a poignant and meaningful memory. Thus far, only the Millennium has turned, so 1 out of 3 and waiting.
ABOUT MICHAEL P. ALEMAN
“I was born and raised in Chicago, the 2nd of four children, into a bi-lingual Mexican-American home, absorbing the sights and sounds of neighborhood living, and learning the racial prejudice which continues to show itself in this country today. I loved city living, and have a fondness today for all things Chicago.
“I began to write verses in about the third grade, jingles for advertisements we included in classroom presentations.
“When I was fifteen, we moved to Powder River, Wyoming, and then later to Casper. I learned and loved the culture of the West, and visit when I can.
“I wrote terrible novel excerpts while stationed in Kodiak Alaska with the navy, and didn’t get serious about trying to write, “literature,” until I began teaching English, which became a long and productive apprenticeship for my writing.
“Reading The Paris Review, and the featured articles, The Art of Poetry, and The Art of Fiction, served as a wonderful tutorial.
“I am a Christian. I’ve been married to the same woman for 51 years, and have mined numbers of poems and a few stories from the gravel.”