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Joseph O. Legaspi

I’d been trying to write this poem for years. My father passed away December 2003. We were so far from having a semblance of a relationship that I couldn’t even call it strained. Yet, a parent’s absence is as powerful as his presence. Or his presence is his absence, forever looming darkly. On the night I received the call from my mother in suburban Los Angeles, I first lamented not the news of my father’s death, but the date with a new boy that I’d be missing due to my sudden obligatory return home. So began the reckoning.

“The Kissing” was the first draft I transcribed into Word/my Mac laptop. It came after my initial heave and hurl with pen on paper, then some more scribbling, scratching and exorcism into my notebook. The year was 2015 on one of the Visayan islands of the Philippine archipelago. Unlike the motherland, I wanted the poem to be compact, wooden, claustrophobic. . . I wanted to emulate and imitate a coffin with my inert father in it; i wanted it to be buried and gone.

Months later, I realized as with any death—and foremost with a blood kin’s—it never goes away. I had failed to honor this death, this poem. The title had to go, vague and romantically suggestive. (Is this a love poem?) Then the form: too obvious, benign, clustered, hence, limiting. I’d buried everything. What I needed was to infuse breath into the poem. Free it up like the soul, spirit. Permit it to contemplate the larger picture: the Lazarus-mystery of my father, Catholicism, rituals, immigrants, cycles.

By breaking it up and varying its lines and stanzas, the poem travels at a better pace through space and time—the episode’s contemplative, funereal march into its momentous reckoning. By isolating the last line, the ending regained, for me, as when I first stumbled upon it, its shocking revelation. The refusal, I believe, can be read in many ways: the assertion of self, defiance of death, a turning away, but also as a headlong grasp, a critique of tradition, the optics of performance, an acceptance, a haunting, a letting go.

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This poem previously appeared in the Academy of American Poets' Poem-a-Day series.

Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

< draft >

The Kissing

Three days into his wake and my father has not risen.
He remains in a box, wooden, hollowed-out, his body
opened up and closed like a zippered purse, organs
ripped out of him, all his life.  How strange to see
your face inside a coffin.  This is the most peaceful
you.  This is you at your most peaceful.  Not even
the loud chorus of wailing family members can rid
you of this sleep.  My mother sits in her chair, front
row, the perpetual matriarch.  She looks classic
in regal black, her eyes sharpened like Cleopatra’s.
Her children, grown and groaning, quietly moan,
befuddled beside a white circle of trumpeting
flowers.  Under the church dome, respectful
immigrants huddle against the closing walls
cold as a mausoleum.  They seem forested.
After such a long journey to another country
to die. Before the casket is closed, all rise to bid
their final farewell to the remains of my father.
My mother lowers herself and kisses the body
on the forehead and cheeks.  She then motions
her children to follow as we’d always done. One
by one my siblings momentarily hover, perch
and peck.  My turn.  I stand over him as I’d done
seizing those safe occasions of approach, while
he slept or incapacitated crooked on dirt floors,
and I studied him, planetary, a deceptive kind
of knowledge, a distant presence both bodily
and imaginative. In his earth box, his beauty
has waned but not faded, softer pink of his lips,
it is just a body, surface of a moon, not ours, I
turn pale and shivering, all I could do is place
my hand on his, reptilian to the touch.  And
my mother touch her hand warm on the cradle
of my back, where I bend to fit into my body.
Her burning eyes speak, Do it for me, they
urge, Kiss your father goodbye.  I refuse.

< REVISION >

Kissing My Father


Three days into his wake my father has not risen.

He remains encased in pine, hollowed-
out, his body unsealed, organs
harvested, then zippered
shut like a purse.

How strange to see one’s face inside
a coffin. The son at my most peaceful.
The father at his most peaceful. 
Not even the loud chorus
of wailing family members
can rid us of our sleep. 

My mother sits front center. 
Regal in black, her eyes sharpened
as Cleopatra’s. Her children, grown
and groaning, quietly moan beside a white
copse of trumpeting flowers. 

The church is forested
with immigrants, spent after their long journey
to another country
to die.

Before the casket
is to be closed, we all rise
to bid our final farewells.

My mother lowers herself,
kisses the trinity of the forehead
and cheeks, then motions her obedient
children to follow. One by one my
siblings hover, perch, and peck.

I stand over my father
as I had done on occasions
of safe approach: in his sleep, or splayed
like a toad on the floor.

I study him, planetary,
distant presence both bodily
and otherwordly, a deceptive
kind of knowledge.
His beauty has waned
but not faded, face surface
of a moon, not ours, I turn pale,
shivering, I place my hand
on his, amphibious. 

While my mother places her hand warm on the cradle
of my back, where I bend to fit into my body.

Her burning eyes speak, Do it for me, they
urge, Kiss your father goodbye.  

I refuse.