My Dad’s Ways of Speaking: Wood and Metal (Part 4)

Often as not, Dad’s don’t became can’t. Like ‘you can’t burn the candle at both ends’ a platitude used to challenge my increasingly night-time activities when I had reached teenage-hood. I could see I had become a person of the night, seeking its solitude and adventure. The night seemed poetic and the day prosaic. Dad was a day person busy with people and mundane work through business hours. Night was for sleep. Another of his rhymes stated, ‘early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy wealthy and wise’. His attitude asserting importance of day over night was like sending an invitation to a duel.  And I accepted the contest. Night verses day.  A nocturnal dreamer, I would have burned the candle at three ends if that had been possible. I know now that during my post-midnight rambles my imagination was being continually fed. But this purpose was impossible to express to my Dad who thought me insane, estranged from work and anti-social. But also Dad was frightened of the night, not the dark, the night. His axioms implied that sensible, valuable and fruitful actions took place in the day. He could go out at night and be the life of the party, in bright rooms under the neon, but my kind of isolation he couldn’t relate to. The young Alfred Lord Tennyson used to be in reverie it is said for hours on long night treks sometimes walking from Somersby twelve miles to the North Sea and not returning to normal consciousness until his feet hit the surf. Perhaps I never reached that uninhibited state but hikes along steep escarpment paths in the moon light above our home certainly implied a reckless abandon.

That was the problem, day seemed responsible and night irresponsible. Dad’s time-worn sayings gave me a focus, targets to attack, and unwittingly urged me away to create ‘original language’, ‘memorial speech’ as poetry has been portrayed at different times. These motives were too embryonic to bear sustained verbal challenge. They were undeclared ‘flashpoints’ in the sharpening battle-lines between my father and me. I was profoundly defensive if he contested my right to wander the dark streets and obstacle-threaded paths, not knowing what exactly I was defending. He shied away from throwing me out of the house.

In the summer, out of school, not yet established in work, I was pushing his patience returning home at 3 or 4 am drunk with night visions. After one episode to my shock I found the front door locked. The windows of our detached home on a street under escarpment glared back and mocked me. I took the locked entrance as an intensification of the scuffle for supremacy between dad and me, the debate between night and day. Not to be defeated I walked down the street to a friend’s house, along his driveway and lifted the folded door to his garage and with cat-thief stealth took a ladder off its hooks without knocking over a tin of paint, bumping the flanks of his car. I hauled the ladder to our house and hoisted it against my bedroom window on the north side and clambered up, dislodging the screen and ducking my head I was inside the locked house. Next, shut the sash quietly, my dad was a light sleeper and I could hear him snorting in a nearby room – to be discovered would have been terrifying – tip-toed along the hallway, down stairs, out the front door, leaving it closed but unlocked behind me, recovered the tilting ladder and carried the instrument of my disobedience back down the street and without a squeak re-hung it in the oily darkness; outside reached up and rolled back down the garage’s door. Returned up-street back to my home through the front door, locked it behind me, up the stairs past mum and dad’s room to mine. Exhausted I was asleep in moments. In the morning, I think for once in my life I truly shocked my dad. Who after I’d unwillingly told the tale of my secret entry declared, ‘if I catch you at it I’ll call the police.’ I remember he said, police, not cops. His choice gave the threat increased menace.  

Some of dad’s reaction was his embarrassment that he the light-sleeper since the war, meaning alert as a watch dog against any disturbance or intrusion, had been out-witted by his own son. I expected no reprieve in our paternal-filial hostilities. But in the evening, as I set off on another late night tramp, on the side table in the front hall and object tagged with my name shone in the gloomy light. It was my own front door key, sparkling; its Yale ridges unworn. To me it was like a gold ring of power. So my father had returned the shock. Nothing during the day had been said to suggest this would be the result of our dispute. No ceremony – here’s the keys to the home. No peace treaty or apology. But this conciliatory gesture became the kind of about-face and reversal of attitudes that I experienced from my dad. An angry morning had become a blissful evening, the symbol of my adulthood, my coming of age, was conspicuously placed for me to secure – base metal had become gold and not to doubt I was part of the family. My entry would be allowed at any hour. His emphatic phrases, his way of speaking wasn’t always his way of acting and reconciling. He could end disaffection with a sudden turn of affection.

I doubt I shared such an event with my granddad who never locked me out. Granddad’s realm was to where I escaped – when I fled from the verbal intimidations of home. The gardener, cabinet-maker would have been ashamed in some ‘old-world-polite’ way about my dad’s and mine conduct. His world was peaceful and his support or love unconditional. There was nothing to win in his corridors or among his flower beds or in his lathe-turning workshop. I had conquered it all long before when I was four or five years old. I was adored and was shown it. Strangely I felt too that all the affirmation and poesy of my granddad’s interior, his narrow room of big books on shelves rising to the ceiling would not help me in my home-based combat.

I had to wrestle my dad and my soul was at stake. Yet I realise now it was invariably in the context of father-son, son-father. And my dad would find a telling phrase that silenced all contention when he said at the end of our fiercest conflict before I left my homeland – ‘you are my son, the rest doesn’t matter’.  And as a symbol of departure I proudly placed the front door key into his hand and he re-placed it, a symbol of return, back into my hand. That gesture also implied his undying influence in my affairs. I could not turn away. In the subtlest non-confrontational way he was victorious after all. Perhaps he recalled when reflecting that he had his reckless times, on Mischief Nights (associated with Hallowe’en) he’d performed his own crack-pot antics like dismantling a neighbour’s wagon then carrying and hoisting each part on to another neighbour’s high barn roof. But he would’ve been enrolled in a loose confederation of youthful males. My desire for seclusion, to ramble on my own, to think without a purpose, outside ritual, was much harder for him to fit into his ribald end of day experiences. I was strange, like a leaf blown in the wind, a person without a country. I’m not sure my Granddad could relate to my contemplative ways either. Once when I was sat, meditating in his afternoon garden, gazing in rapture at a flower’s circle of petals, he asked what I was doing. Trying to explain the techniques and value of concentration was met with the sharp rebuttal, ‘Don’t waste your time.’ I couldn’t easily dismiss his comment (not when he’d supported me in everything) and my whole world seemed to be teetering as he limped off. My idling was difficult to appreciate for a craftsman with materials to purchase, deadlines to meet and customers to serve.

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 ( 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.

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