(For my father)

by Tanner Howard


Like so many nights, tonight the cabinet is quiet 
in the basement corner, the one painted
storm grey, cross thatched with the shadows 
hanging down from the floorboards.
There the light shifts, dull and uneasy
as the waves that surface in the grain, falling, crashing,
swirling in still eddies. Daddy built it for Mama
before any of us were born. Back when
he built furniture for a living, when
they both were living in a house with a single room. 
Or maybe it’s after that, in the house
they built together with Pop. The story
is harder to trace than the roots of trees, 
and the past shifts and settles as much their wood. 

Maybe that’s what makes it possible to look 
at a cabinet long enough to see my father; 
the silvering trail of a goatee breaking across 
the laugh lines of his face, the rough
of the hands, like mine now, so many years later,
the smell of smoke, starscapes of callouses, 
working scars, blisters.

In his workshop behind the house
he works long into the night, sawing, planing,
screwing in rollers and brass hinges
in the angry buzzing of arcane equipment;
whispering to himself, even as the stand of pines
leans over his shoulders to watch, shaking out
some of the night birds. The band saw
strikes up another rhythm, and even the stain brush 
slow dances, waltzes along the fresh sanded slats,
though the only lyric is a sigh, shallow enough
that it might have been him or the setting frame.

There are older, subtler ways of loving something.
Maybe that night, alone, behind the tool shed
he was already thinking of the cradles 
he would build, the two little figurines of dragons
and a butterfly he’d carve for his three kids 
one year for birthday gifts. Maybe it’s easier 
than speaking the words; building a cabinet,
writing a poem.

But that’s what art is, isn’t it?
A stand-in for those things that are too hard to say. 
An honest gesture towards an impossible end. 

Yes, I think there’s something to be learned
from a good cabinet, maybe even a poem.
Something about the unexplainable ways things
will fit together. Something about the way
you can look for years at something 
before you really see it. 


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