I hope you are all well this week; perhaps you are finding some rest in the lull until New Year, perhaps you are bored and looking forward to some more activity, perhaps you are still busy, or didn’t get the break you wanted over Christmas. In any case I hope this coming year can feel like a fresh start if you need one and can bring you some hope, if not joy.
This week’s poem would not be considered a poem by many, but I’ll explain why I think it is below. It could be described as a piece of flash fiction (very short prose writing, usually under 500 words) by the American writer George Saunders. Here you go!
Sticks, by George Saunders
Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he’d built out of metal pole in the yard. Super Bowl week the pole was dressed in a jersey and Rod’s helmet and Rod had to clear it with Dad if he wanted to take the helmet off. On the Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veteran’s Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost. The pole was Dad’s only concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup saying: Good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream. The first time I brought a date over she said: what’s with your dad and that pole? and I sat there blinking.
We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow. When an earthquake struck Chile he lay the pole on its side and spray painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We’d stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom’s makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and the sticks and left them by the road on garbage day.
This piece is gorgeous, so skilfully-written, heart-breaking – it works so well because it knows exactly what to leave unsaid. I think that the difference between poetry and prose could be that poetry shapes silence as well as words, in the same way that music is as much about the rests as the notes. In that sense I think this piece is a poem.
At surface level, it’s about a dad who becomes obsessed with dressing up a pole according to changes in season and occasion – first for more routinely-commemorated events like Halloween, but increasingly for stranger ones too.
I think the poignancy of the piece comes from the space between the father’s normal character – stingy, controlling, volatile – and the father who dresses up the pole with such devotion and expression. Why does that space exist? What is it about this inanimate, prosaic object, that allows him to pour such poetry into it? What is it that he can express with this pole that he can’t express in any other way? Who is he trying to speak to?
Take care of yourselves my poetry people!