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My Father’s World

Poem by Sean W. Hoffman (2014)

Heavy metals, varnished layers, drying oil.
This, and a sheet.
And LO the magic happens;
Time bent to practiced craft
Shines jewel-like in captured moments,
Of a man whose word is worth a thousand pictures.
In this world, bridges boldly leap the river
Flashing bright below, from Whitman’s Camden
Into Brotherly Love; where the rooftops are
The barbaric yawp:
“Share! Share with me, this amazing THING I saw
And seeing, knew I must show others!”
Where historic mansions and rusting warehouses equally
Glow in memory with the living warmth
Of a thousand fragrant summer days
The scent of soft pretzels, traffic, river breezes,
And the sinus-tickling sense of hot asphalt
Immortalized, somehow, in brushstrokes;
Recorded in the quiver of the artist’s hand
On slate and brick and concrete,
As on a phonograph.
The heat that bakes the sunshine cities
Nearly radiant on your face from this
Love song built in light to the city;
A joyous, yearning wake for buildings; the ghosts of history,
Public architecture from another age,
Art Deco facades and classical lines
Built whole from Platonic forms beyond our ken;
Citadels nod heavy at the hubris of glassy towers,
As if to say, “This too shall pass.”
But not here.
Not HERE, in this snapshot of the city’s beating heart,
Not NOW, in this photograph of the city’s soul.
Peopled with immortals, this moment, this glassine NOW
Displayed for you alone, belongs now to the ages.
And beyond the city, stretches the farmland of America’s forever;
Rolling hills and trees and skies that pain the heart;
The unfathomable depth of the blue speaking hope
In a way that makes the heart swell in the chest
With the immensity of creation.
The colors strike the eye with the smell of hay and morning,
The clearing ozone of a shower just gone,
And the tobacco ghost of Red Man on a barn.
The lakes and dells and forests,
The land cleared and green and ready in between.
Laughing streams and darkened bowers of fallen trees
Smell of the rich loam that powers the plants
Tended by these custodians of the earth.
Now feel these slower stories with your eyes;
Peopled with curious cows and clapboard,
Barns and houses aged and fixed and painted,
Aged and fixed and painted again.
Through generations of Pennsylvania Dutch,
Rawboned men built of hickory and leather,
High patrician foreheads and aquiline noses
Haloed by the loving landscape
Breathing the iron-rich air of Pittsburgh
The coal dust of the ridges,
The warm dry straw that sifts down from the hay loft;
Gold through the rays of afternoon.
Their wives dimpled smiles overlay
The haughtiness of unassailable respectability
In soft lace and sweater-wearing grace.
And down to us, his family;
Captured more fully than in photos.
In chairs and sofas, mirrors, swings and yards,
Lying, sitting, standing, running.
But beyond, before and ever after
As through the windows, beyond the wallpaper
Of earlier portraits, the city, farms and suburb
Across that landscape the steel rails that built America
Roll out from the demented tunnels and bridges
Of the Three Rivers and into a future
That matters not as yet; as slag and coke
Burn off and reveal the shining backbone of freedom;
Rolled hard and dearly bought with sweat.
And all these moments fall into a work;
This is not nostalgia; this is not memory.
This is not an ode; this is not a dream.
This is a Homeric work, six decades of vision bent to show others
The beauty of the now, the joy of seeing, of these things, of everything.
Of you and I and what we both share in the world;
Of people and life and living it.
Of simultaneity and history and hereness and nowness.
This is the warmly-frozen forever of my father’s world,
Which he must share with you.
And on my best days,
Those lucky days I am at my best,
I am fortunate to catch a glimpse of it,
Outside his frames of gilt and paint and wood.