Poetry Sunday: “Self-Portrait with Prodigal Father,” by Elizabeth Majerus

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

The title of today’s poem is from a growing tradition of such poems that seek to present the speaker (in some cases also the author) in self-portrait alongside another person or object. An entirely wonderful book that makes great use of this device is Dean Rader’s Self-Portrait with Wikipedia Entry (Copper Canyon 2015), a collection that includes the title poem and many others such as “Self Portrait with Contemplation” and “Self-Portrait at Easter.”

“Self-Portrait with Prodigal Father” does what good titles are meant to do—give an idea of the poem’s subject—but does it with a “hook,” something to grab attention and pique interest, to ensure that readers will go on to read the poem. We know the poem will paint a portrait of the speaker, and we know that portrait will be heavily colored by and at least include the speaker’s relationship with her father but, in a surprising switch from convention, that father is described as “prodigal.” From the Biblical story, we are used to “prodigal” describing sons and even daughters who return home after having strayed, but less so for parents. But it’s an interesting idea, and one that makes us want to read further. One thing it taps into is that universal experience of seeing the parent/child roles reversed as we age. In any event, this title catches our attention and make us consider these issues even before the poem has begun, an effective setup.

“Self-Portrait with Prodigal Father” is free verse, with thirty-one short lines that are unrhymed and unmetered, arranged in to seven stanzas of 3, 3, 4, 5, 2, 7, and 3 lines. Numerically speaking, the stanzas start small, then balloon in the fourth stanza before subsiding back to short-stanza form. As we will see below, that shape on the page is mimetic of what is being expressed in those stanzas, especially the longest one, where everything breaks open. The poem uses regular syntax, grammar, and punctuation and keeps diction simple. It’s a straightforward treatment of a difficult subject—a father’s betrayal and subsequent return to his family. Point of view is first-person “I,” but the poem also uses an intimate form of direct address that allows the speaker to talk directly to her father as “you,” as if he were there in the room with her.

The very first stanza sets up the tension between a father and his daughter, the speaker. She was a “chattering child,” an onomatopoeic pairing of words whose “ch” alliteration sounds like the noisy talking it describes. Her father, in contrast, was taciturn and reserved, a “wise monk” who habitually “held [his] tongue.” The conflict sharpens in the next stanza’s lovely image likening the child’s joyousness to a magnet drawing laughter like steel shavings. Again, the father stands apart, the only one “not amused.” In these stanzas we feel the speaker’s separation and her father’s alienation. We sense in “wise monk” the child’s reverence and awe at the same time we feel her scalded by her father’s seeming withdrawal.

That there was at least some closeness and connection between the two of them is established by stanza 3’s recounting the memory of a “rare moment of mutual serenity” on a riverbank, but even that memory is complicated. In an example of T.S. Eliot’s “objective correlative,” the elements of the landscape here reflect the speaker’s internal state, a turbidity and complexity captured in “the twisting green scent / of willow, on the thick liquid / muscle of the river.” Whatever this relationship was, it was tortured and took effort.

The word that begins stanza four, “then,” signals a time shift. We are still in the past, but in a past more recent than the one described in the first two stanzas, the speaker now older than that chattering, laughing child. What’s being described here is a family schism, a rift when, perhaps due to an extramarital affair (a “mislaid love”) or maybe to a more generalized mental breakdown (an “errancy”), the father becomes separated from his nuclear family. Whatever the cause, there has been some violent precipitating event during which the father was “lifted up and split.” Shattered, he requires healing, and it is provided not by his own wife and children but by his siblings, a brother who claps a hand on his back, a sister who feeds him a homemade, regional (“pinebark”) stew. During that time of separation, the speaker stayed with her mother, a unit apart from her father: “Fast by my mother’s side, / I stood amazed at your errancy.”

The father has “split,” a personal disintegration that has also caused him, more vernacularly to “split,” thereby cleaving his family in two. He is still “split” when he, like the prodigal son,  eventually returns back into the family’s embrace. Notice the wonderful wordplay that makes an anagram of that word, converting it into “spilt” in the fourth line of stanza 6. The father’s heart, previously hard and impervious, breaks wide open to spill “treasures” enumerated in a remarkable list—“rose quartz, orange blossom / honey, a hundred and fifty / mother-of-pearl buttons, / peals of frank laughter”—that captures a childlike wonder and sense of bounty and beauty. What was lost has been restored—not just the father’s physical presence in the home, but the laughter so painfully withheld from the child in the first stanza.

Many of us had wandering fathers and perhaps dreamed of this kind of return and healing resolution, and for us, Father’s Day can bring mixed feelings. And they are mixed for this speaker as well. “You uttered endearments / I didn’t know existed” is a double-edged sword, communicating appreciation for such endearments at the same time it reminds us that the speaker never heard them when they might have mattered most, when she was a small child. The idea that you can never truly go home again and that family rifts may heal but still leave scars, is communicated in metaphor in the final stanza. In fact, the poem takes it a step even further to suggest that scars may not always be a bad thing.

The last stanza takes place in the present. “Now,” the speaker says, she goes through life in a way shaped by that experience of having lost, then regained, her father.

Now I eye every slate grey rock,
wonder what color might come
from a well-aimed blow.

Things—and people—are not always what they seem, is one lesson learned. Who knew the father’s heart contained such “treasure” before it “split” open? After being hard and closed to the speaker for years, like that “slate grey rock,” he shows his “color,” the way a geologist’s hammer can split a dull geode to reveal a magic world of prism and hue inside. This experience, instead of leaving the speaker bitter, teaches her that from great violence and pain (“a well-aimed blow”) can come great beauty. The message in the end is one of hope, wonder, and faith in the renewability of human relationships.

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