James Valvis has placed poems or stories in Ploughshares, Whiskey Island Magazine, Southern Indiana Review, Louisville Review, The Sun, and hundreds of other journals. His poetry was selected for Best American Poetry 2017. His fiction was chosen for Sundress Best of the Net and won 2nd Place in Folio’s Editor’s Prize. His work has also come in 2nd for the Asimov’s Readers’ Award. A former US Army soldier, he lives near Seattle.
My Dad Stands Over Me as I Write a Poem
“Weren’t there any good times?”
he wants to know. “Like Christmas
mornings or the days we went
to Great Adventure, not to mention
all those cans of green soda I shared
with only you? And how about
mentioning the time I ran down
that bully who beat you up
and went to your probation
meeting and told the officer
you were a good kid, all told?
You make me look like a bastard
in poem after poem after poem
and I’m too dead to defend myself.
You forget I took your mother in
with two kids who weren’t my own,
and then raised you better than
my own father raised me, never
making you eat lard on bread,
beating you less, not more.
You ought to say something nice
once in a while; I gave you quarters
for the arcade, Mr. Softee ice creams,
took you with me to the AA meetings
where you learned to tell stories
you now publish in magazines.
I wired the lights in your room,
filtered the pool every summer,
cooked you thousands of dinners.
I was there when you graduated college,
though it made me sad I never would,
and there again when you finished
Boot Camp, and shook your hand
and told you I was proud.
Give an old, dead guy a break,
for at least one poem, and prove,
after all your abuse, you’re better
than the man who beat you.”
My Mom Stands Over Me as I Write a Poem
“I’ll admit I wasn’t much of a mother,” she says,
“if you’ll admit you weren’t much of a son.
I’ve read your poems and they don’t add up.
I don’t recall you calling out for me. Too often
your eyes went blank after your father beat you.
You chose quiet coma over complaint. I have
a foggy memory, like a beacon dulled in the smoke
of sea breath. You always lost a shoe in the morning.
I had my suspicions you hid them to get out
of going to school, and so when you were beaten
with the remaining shoe, why should I speak
in your defense? And remember that time
you chose to stay with your drunk father rather
than leave with me, claiming it didn’t matter
and I would be home in days, like the other times?
How often did I have to tell you not to pick your nose
and instead pick up your room? How many times
did I drive places I had no interest in going?
I don’t recall, but maybe many. I remember
the time, while I tried to win us a jackpot,
I give you my used red Bingo marker you used
to give your arms a pox? Who scoured them
off your arms later with Brillo pads and peroxide?
Was that me? Or your father? Or did we somehow
get you to do it? You were too smart for terrible grades,
or was it too stupid for great grades? Or maybe
I made some of this stuff up. Maybe I read some of it
in a book or saw it in a movie at the hospice.
I admit I can’t recall what you were like in the womb,
fifth grade, last year. There really isn’t much left to say.
I’m old now; I have gone to confession. You could
more easily forgive everything I found easy to forget.”