Song For My Father

Robert F. Willis (1921-1987)
Robert F. Willis (May 12, 1921 – November 3. 1987)

For Bob Willis, All My Love

I remember walking through snow to Long’s Bookstore
two men not at work on Wednesday morning
with time to kill before going to the clinic.

The father says tentatively
pushing hands into coat pockets:
I don’t know what poetry is
I work with my hands
I’m awkward with words.

The son knows he just heard one
his heart pounds, he wants to cry.
Remember this, remember this moment:
four wet shoes instead of two
first snow’s filtered swelling light.

I awaken ten years later to think stammer
everything I could not tell you

You were willing to listen to me
to find out the man who could weld two
elephants’ asses together
if they stood still long enough
who taught me that water freezes
and melts at the same temperature
which is not a point at all
or a line to cross
only move¬ment, direction.
The genome of silence and stride piano
is yours and mine together: we play it by ear.
It’s nurtured on the wind, in the shadows
of buzzards soar¬ing at the farm.
It passes from gnarled cedar roots
to the grit of barefoot sandstone.
It punctuates the tedium of making
and spending money, of getting
up every day to fall asleep on the couch.
If it’s worth anything, it’s like a river
laughter, or a woman’s touch:
we cannot know when or how it arrives,
we cannot keep it the same.

I still believe the answer
I managed for you then.
Whatever it is is more
than what is memorized
recited or printed in books.

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5 Responses to Song For My Father

  1. Sara H says:

    A wonderful poem. You do look like your dad…

  2. Mark Willis says:

    Thanks very much, Sara. I won’t be able to memorialize my father on this anniversary in my customary way, with a long walk in the woods (how the day job intrudes on the authenticity of life), but your observation that I really do look like him will carry me through the day!

  3. Sara H says:

    I’d love to hear your stride piano! :-)

  4. Mark Willis says:

    My stride piano is more poetic aspiration than musical reality, but I’d give everything to hear my dad’s chops again. Whenever I listen to Dave Brubeck’s recording of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, I’m transported to a time when I sat in my father’s lap, mesmerized as his hands romped up and down the keys.

  5. Mark Willis says:

    As I remember my father at the piano, I’m also conjuring his mother Ona Willis, the primordial pianist in our family. Praying for a Piano Player tells the story, and Henry Butler & Tipitina stretch it out a little further down the road.

    And how can I title a post “Song for My Father” without a deep bow to Horace Silver and his classic tune? Here’s what I posted two years ago on this anniversary:

    “Song for My Father” has always been a touchstone for me. It summons memories and feelings of my father Bob, who was a eager young jazz musician and band leader in his day. As I watched fiveofsix’s hands glide across the Steinway, deep emotion welled inside me. I began to weep. If my father were alive today, he would be shooting digital video of his own expressive hands improvising “Stardust” and “Misty” on his beloved Hammond B2 organ. And I’d be posting them on YouTube.

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