This week we are publishing Paul Sutherland’s ‘My Dad’s Ways of Speaking: Wood and Metal’, in which Paul reflects on the contrasting influences of his father and grandfather. He comments, “The problem for me is that I have for years recognised and honoured my granddad’s inspiration. But, due in part because of the conflicts between my dad and me, I have only recently accepted the stranger influence of my father’s colloquialisms.”
Dad’s containment of me meant I gravitated towards my grandparents who eagerly sought and hoped I would converse with them no matter how constrained my knowledge and elocution. Also when I became a teenager proper – about seventeen – I burst out like a jack in the box wheeling razor blades of philosophy, poetry and anger. I thrashed and trashed my father’s world every chance he gave me, and even thrashed those who had loved, loved me and revealed that emotional connection over and over, but not enough to silent the loud mouth, argumentative family party-wrecker I became. But now I know I owe a lot to my dad’s stinginess, tight fists and red hair and black greasy hands that produced his ribald versification such as ‘a chicken might have flown over it’ which he used to denote the absence of chicken flavour or substance in a tin or can of chicken soup. He knew what real soup tasted like; he had supped at his mother’s adult-crowded table as is shown in so many Westerns, not a ‘mother-father two kids’ but a rambling extended group of blood and non-blood relations. Real soup – thick with chicken taste – was in his past rural location and not from a tin or can. He was critical of fast foods that put convenience before nutrition and taste, a modern ecologist conservator in his way. Another word combination he flung at me was ‘don’t act like you were a human garburator’ referring to my vast appetite and also that so much of his income went towards feeding us children. No doubt, that chicken flying over it left me with some picture that tingled me and nurtured my imagination. Again the statement could’ve been seen as comic more than offensive to the soup maker – who wasn’t present but far off in a factory. A garburator was Canadian slang for a kitchen sink disposal unit that sliced wasted food and flushed it away, a concept now outmoded for many hygienic reasons.
Against these negatives ‘don’t do that’s, dad was often my moral measure. He said, if you leave God’s country make sure where you settle you become a citizen of that nation. So when I came to England it took time but eventually his words dug in and I became naturalised as a British subject. So God’s country had its boundary and another ethics had to be applied if I immigrated. He had soldiered in England, so held some affection for the old country though not above noting how there were many Limy D.Ps around these days. The displaced English had flocked to Canada for sanity and to earn enough to live on. When I said, I’m going to go to England, he and my mum thought I would return soon. They were shocked when I stayed. In his nationalistic mind to be Canadian was a prized disposition.
He was solid in his defence of the advantages of higher wages and higher standard of living despite frequent transatlantic flights to visit me and see England and Scotland. He claimed when you’ve seen one castle you’ve seen them all. But he went to every game of the local Hamilton Tiger Cats, football team, he didn’t think seeing one of their games was seeing them all. He hollered for them when they were up and rooted for them when they were down.
But it was also that they were Canadians playing American football or was it Americans playing Canadian football? To him everything Canadian was great but demanded vigilant protection. I never understood this contradiction. On the map the sprawling nation spread from ocean to ocean and its northern fringes tickled the Arctic. Yet its small population mooted the fear that it could be gobbled up by its gigantic neighbour, the U.S.A. Canada had never had an empire. ‘The true north’ as it says in the national anthem, was an underdog in the stakes of nationhood, undervalued and easily ignored. These invented national traits, such as always saying Sorry, corresponded with dad’s feelings of being inferior and that demand to get on with the job and forget everything else. We don’t need castles, or stars and stripes we have no pretensions but we have land, resources and work for our workers. Dad had two major passions: his wife and his country.
Once he walked by an alley’s end and gazing down it spied me peering meditatively at a mass of flowers. Hours later when I arrived home, he quipped, ‘you looked like a person without a country.’ By then, being a rebellious teen, his comments had little effect. I took a reverse pride in being called ‘without’ which implied I was ‘with’ something else that to me had overtaken my family and was defining my individuality. Being without a country meant I was with the world. But I had never fought in foreign fields wearing my country’s style and colour of uniform with its bronze metallic symbolism day in day out. Being described as a stateless person meant I had lost my connection with him, with everything he valued and yet this disconnection was never remotely true. At his funeral after I had delivered a valedictory speech on the many good qualities in my father’s character, his friends or work cronies (he kept friends for a lifetime) pressed around me – expressing how proud my dad was, ‘how proud of you he was’. Another irony of the negating tongue is to leave the praise of your children to distant others when your mouth is stuffed with cloth and you’re in the casket. Perhaps it was only then he believed he wouldn’t be mocked. Could his sense of being inferior, little educated, reach such depths?
Life required sincerity, dedication, if you live in a nation you buy the product of that nation – where you lived decided the team you rooted for –whether they were good, bad or mediocre you promoted that team. He wanted to purchase Canadian and as factory after factory shut down he strived to find the last outlet that displayed – Made in Canada. He liked to haggle over a cost, so he distrusted supermarkets where the servers shook their puzzled heads. He didn’t want only to get the item for the cheapest cost, he wanted to make the financial transaction real, something sweated and worked for, give and take, show your wits, talk them around to your price. And when he was confronted by youthful resistance to his charm and gift for the gab like with a travel agent, he might retort – ‘I was flying before you were born’. And with a clerk in a bank, ‘I was banking before you were born’, and an argument with a fellow motorist ‘I was driving before you were born’ and at the football match – he shouted ‘the referee’s got a glass eye’ – another turn of phrase to flummox the uninitiated.
Dad’s invectives (their grasp of immediate needs in a situation) off-set the influence of my granddad’s incantations. His stylish diatribes could usually generate enough humour that most conflicts were resolved without loss of face or blood or without someone saying ‘I’ll call the cops’. So whereas many senior citizens felt out-manoeuvred by racing technology in the hands of the young, dad countered this tendency with – ‘I was born before…’ The statement offered an unchallenged reality but also a mantra that claimed experience couldn’t be displaced by gadgetry. It was a belief that despite obvious limitations, bodily pain and mental sorrow, old age would be supreme with its wisdom and endurance. The comment put everything in perspective that you act like you know it all – with your new-fangled knowledge – but success and ascendancy is a phase, before another unknown set of rules takes over. You ‘my sweet pretty thing’ or ‘you smart-ass’ are also victims of time, his spoken come-back seemed to say. Whatever its connotations, dad spoke a language which opposed the contemporary idea of who’s in control. If he was the loser, ready to be dismissed and manipulated then he stood up for himself, for old age and for veterans. He disarmed officials with his verve. The linguistic hounds of power and government met the semantic fox. He might’ve felt the outsider, disrespected, oppressed, but he wouldn’t be silenced. Paradoxically we children needed to be calm and mute to satisfy our word-slinging master. The greying fox wasn’t going to pass on to his cubs his skills in oral combat. Maybe it couldn’t be passed on, was too individual, too ‘his’ to be shared. His rebuttal ‘I was born..’ gave status to ‘a tattered coat upon a stick’. Instead of shell-shocked by jargon he threw back his creative volleys. This repartee was certainly a kind of factual, distinct, dialectal poetics.
Paul Sutherland, Canadian-British poet/writer, in UK, since 1973, has fifteen collections, editing seven others. He’s founding editor of Dream Catcher an international journal in its 39th issue. He runs creative writing workshops and widely performs his poetry; leads seminars; mentors; runs Writers Retreats and collaborates with musicians, visual artists and calligraphers; lectures on e.g. Sufi poets and English Literature. He appears in anthologies and journals. Spires and Minarets was published by Sunk Island Publishing and Journeying from Valley Press 2012 (ww.valleypressuk.com). He reverted to a Sufi Muslim 2004; two books have followed, Poems on the Life of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) 2014, A Sufi Novice in Shaykh Efendi’s Realm, (first pub. In Romania in a bilingual book 2014; re-printed in UK 2015) describing his adventures in North Cyprus. He’s won literary awards; a poem of his helped promote Olympics 2012. He has won grants and participated in many projects. He turned freelance 2004. A New and Selected Poems, was re-launched from Valley Press 2017: 384 pages of 45 years of his writing a ‘unique …an unflinching and forensic exploration of a life through language.’ The book was listed by PBS for winter 2017 and selected as a choice for The Morning Stars’ books of 2017. The University of Lincoln archives his poetry, prose and criticism. A collection of PS’s love poems, called Amoretti, was published by Dempsey and Windle in 2018. This year his poetry sequence of miniatures Red Streamers was published as a bilingual edition of English and Romanian by PIM in Romania. New works are planned for 2020.