Have You Prayed?
A Call-and-Response with Li-Young Lee's poem, "Have You Prayed?"
When the wind
turns and asks, in my father's voice,
Have you prayed?
(and this should be enough.
but it is not enough. i go on answering:
and if he doesn't pray, can't pray?
tell me: has he ever prayed, even once?
i wonder: can one man begin another man’s prayer
if he can't begin it himself?
and is that a son's duty to his father if his father can't pray,
even a first duty, linked also to the last and lasting duty––
kaddish when he's dead, kaddish and renewal,
the blessing of his memory as one blesses new life?)
I know three things. One:
I'm never finished answering to the dead.
(in my sights, the scholars are at their table:
"to answer the dead is one thing," one says,
"and to answer to the dead another."
their table turns out to be my father's table,
and there he sits with them, and they are speaking of me,
i am the one dead to them all,
i the one whom they do not answer,
and i the one to whom they do not answer.)
Two: A man is four winds and three fires.
And the four winds are his father's voice,
his mother's voice . . .
(the study house of my father is eternal, it is true,
but whether an eternal somewhere or an eternal nowhere is not clear.
one thing i know:
it is only in the study house that true things can be questioned.
is the voice within my father's voice a wind or a fire?
is the voice within my own voice a fire or a wind?
and if wind burns like fire, and fire bends like wind,
how to distinguish us, one from the other?)
Or maybe he's seven winds and ten fires.
And the fires are seeing, hearing, touching,
dreaming, thinking . . .
Or is he the breath of God?
(my father's happiness is quarrelsome,
and his joy is foolish, it is true.
his life avoids the living god––
fixed light to the moving world and moving light to the fixed world––
and he asks no one his own crushing and personal questions:
"what if my sweat and hurry are unworthy?
who will clear for me a resting place?
and who will pave my way to it?")
When the wind turns traveler
and asks, in my father's voice, Have you prayed?
I remember three things.
One: A father's love
(but it is me, i am the urgency behind my father's remembrance,
and i ask: what force binds those three words as one, "a father's love"?
the answer is mysterious:
as mysterious as the actual life in eyes made of paint,
or the frozen tears on my mother's face in late august,
or the sinking gravity within acts of love.
why are the sparks of souls visible only at certain hours
and on certain days of uttering?
and why are the holiest days called days for remembering?
why all of my life i have made the mistake
of speaking to my father as if speaking to my poet,
and speaking to my poet as if he were my father,
when neither the poet nor the father seek my heart?)
is milk and sugar,
two-thirds worry, two-thirds grief, and what's left over
(that is indeed his diet: milk and sugar, grief and worry,
a diet of gluttony and fasting, one following the other.
and he is somehow both obese and skeletal,
and sadness forever creeps across his confidence without his consent,
sadness besetting him almost unintentionally,
and his sad eyes blink his hidden heart.)
is trimmed and leavened to make the bread
the dead and the living share.
(the scholars are arguing:
"you must treat the bread as a kneaded candle," says one,
"you must treat the candle as bread with a wick in it," says another.
only on fridays does my father light the bread thus made.
the scholars at his table go on arguing.
"blessings without prayers are not blessings," says one.
"prayers without blessings are not prayers," says another.
only with bread in his hands does my father recite hebrew.)
And patience? That's to endure
the terrible leavening and kneading.
(i would not be surprised to wake some midnight
and discover my father flying toward the moon,
drawn to its light in his hour of aloneness,
leaping into space from his set-back garden on a non-jewish street,
there in his city of mute fences and cement,
jumping from the last stone on a trail to a resting place.)
And wisdom? That's my father's face in sleep.
(the voice was hidden but the speech was distinct:
i found my father reciting the words of the scholars
whose company he never kept:
"write no poem that is not both crushing and personal," he advised me,
this was his wisdom
though he knows no poems at all.)
When the wind
asks, Have you prayed?
I know it's only me
(but me, i’m no use:
i know no wise man to intercede for him
no friend to pray on his behalf,
no scholar to break into the entropy of god's coming and going,
and none to explain to him god's way of appearing in the book
while disappearing from the resting places,
receiving good wishes in silence
while rousing ill-wishers to dominate a man's self-image.)
a flower is one station between
earth's wish and earth's rapture, and blood
(but you, my poet,
where you remind yourself, i reprimand myself,
and where flowers mark the stations on your savior's path to blood,
the savior walks a desert path in me,
a wandering line between loss and loss.)
was fire, salt, and breath long before
it quickened any wand or branch, any limb
that woke speaking. It's just me
(you, my poet, your elements somehow make new earth,
while i have only pictures, good for conjuring the earth away.
my father is not in my pictures,
but maybe he is in your words?
is he there, with you, studying the world's thoughts from a fatherly distance,
and retrieving me when i wander from the study house,
heading––as i am wont to do––toward faraway cities
to moisten the cemetery plots?)
in the gowns of the wind,
or my father through me, asking,
Have you found your refuge yet?
asking, Are you happy?
("my sins press on me from above," my father finally says,
and at the same time they fly away from me...
and me, i cannot answer.
"why," i finally say, "is my world made of the nothing,
vanity all around, before i disappear into a greater nothing?
and why is the only wonder that the nothing––god––remains hidden?")
Strange. A troubled father. A happy son.
The wind with a voice. And me talking to no one.
(strange, indeed, a troubled father, and the inevitable sadness of the son he begets,
and the windy fire that spoke once, before the scholars can remember,
and the very small tools god gave me to measure his days.)
photographs: point lobos, california, august 2015