FATHER WAS AN ANGRY MAN, that much I remember well. I was put
into day care when I was less than one year old, as was my younger
brother when his turn came, so that my father, who stayed home to
write I suppose, would not have to be bothered taking care of us
all day long. I can't imagine what it would have been like to be
with him all day, because he had a fuse that was as short as a match,
and if I fussed at all when he picked me up after the day care,
or once we got home, he would paralyze me with a shouting that I
still hear in my dreams. He always made it a point to make his voice
louder than mine when I cried or complained and he would throw me
in my room for long periods of time for even the slightest infraction
of his indeterminable rules.
a man who was as free as he was, of employment, of responsibilities,
he certainly preferred to have his children as tightened up with
responsibilities as any three year old could handle. And my mother,
as grimaced as she might become when my father blew his stack at
us in her presence, if I recall correctly, did very little to extricate
him from his freedom. And that freedom must have become something
that he disliked immensely because, before he killed himself, when
I was seven, his anger was all I remember feeling in our house.
my recollections of him have been set in stone as a result of the
many hours I have spent looking at the various, but not innumerable,
photographs we had of him. He had a large, fleshy nose that I remember
going after with my little fingers occasionally. Sometimes he would
allow it, but just as often he would wag his pointy peanut head
and say, "No." He was not slim (his thin, pointy head
sat strangely upon his wide torso), but he was fairly fit and strong
in the upper body. He could easily carry me and my brother up the
stairs in his arms. I remember that he had one pair of blue jeans
that were dusty and greasy and I watched them as they frayed and
decayed when he wore them for weeks on end without washing them.
I remember the rows my parents would have when my mother told him
that he needed to shower, and I have a clear memory of the tangy
smell of his unwashed body, although it has been many years since
I smelled it. Sometimes he would stick his head under a faucet,
but I don't remember him ever taking a shower, certainly not at
my mother's request or demand.
he used to like to bathe my brother and me. He would sing songs
as he watched us splash and play. He would take a melody that we
liked, Old MacDonald, or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and he would
change the words into a nonsensical rant usually about weasels or
bananas or chickens. He encouraged my brother and I tried to keep
up with him but he would frown when we reduced our songs to repetitions
of "poop" and "pee." He would say, "You
don't need to say that to be interesting."
suppose I loved him, but I remember the anger so clearly that, even
when he was kind, there was the threat of his kindness turning to
fierce disapproval, which always kept me on my guard with him. I
suppose I knew that there was something wrong with him toward the
end, but only because I remember he and my mother arguing and never
being comfortable with each other around. I had no comparison really
to other kid's fathers. He was as nice and solicitous as any of
the other fathers at my day care, but not exceptionally so. He never
yelled at anybody the way that he yelled at Yorick and me.
clearest memory of my father remains from about one week before
he died. He was in his writing room, surrounded by papers, books,
tissues, empty bottles and dirty dishes. I had been playing in the
living room and I joined him. He took me on his lap. He let me finger
the keyboard of the typewriter. I loved the feel of the keys, not
resisting my touch, slapping the roller with a sharp snap, and bouncing
back to its original position. He let me press the keys and we talked
about the letters. I asked him why the letters were so mixed up
on the keyboard. He said, "Because that is the way a person's
mind is, all mixed up and fragmented. You have to work very hard
to try to organize your thoughts and words, so people can understand."
He told me that he had just finished his big project, a poem. He
told me that was his work, his job. He seemed relieved and he told
me that he was proud of himself for his slow and steady effort.
He told me that he was like the tortoise of the Tortoise and the
days, I have no other clear recollections of him between that moment,
sitting on his lap, and his death shortly thereafter. The thing
I recall most clearly is that my mother seemed to die too when she
discovered him. She died in the sense that, immediately upon discovering
him early in the morning (he had driven a knife into his chest above
his heart as he lay naked in the bath tub, presumably in the middle
of the night), she seemed to have taken on his anger, and focused
that anger like a laser beam onto her memory of him. She has never
talked about him but in the most disgusted of terms for having abandoned
us, and she just seemed to have no more emotion to share with anybody
after he died.
heard her first guttural click of horror that morning. She slammed
the bathroom door closed and swore profusely, "God damnit.
God damnit." She, shook her hands out a bit and then went to
the phone and called somebody. Yorick and I tried to get into the
bathroom, but the door was locked. She then dressed us and took
me to school and Yorick to day care, both of which were nearby.
Normally my father would have done this and my mother would have
gone to work, so I asked, "Where's Dad?" She said that
he wasn't feeling well and not to ask any more questions.
knew it then. I knew I was never going to see him again. That day,
when half of my created world disappeared, the obsession to recreate
that world began. I froze to the outside world that morning and
have never completely thawed. I went through that school day in
a haze, wondering why I couldn't even see my father, why he was
locked in the bathroom if he wasn't feeling well.
mother, whose phone call that morning was not for an ambulance but
to her work saying that she would not be coming in that day, did
her best to inform us when she picked us up early that afternoon.
She told us that our grandparents, and uncles and aunts and cousins,
were coming but that it was not a celebration. She told us that
Father had died by cutting himself in the bathtub. I didn't understand
how anybody could cut themselves in the bathtub. She said that we
would not see him again.
a mystery began then! How could I not see my father again? Mother
was visibly upset and she did cry, but more clearly I recall the
determination in her manner to speak honestly with us, to show us
that, more than sadness, she was angry that he had left us. She
said he was dead, that he had cut himself, and that he had left
us. It took me another two years to equate these circumstances with
suicide. So many questions and nobody to ask them of. Yorick was
forever wandering around the house saying, "Where's Daddy?
Where's Daddy?" I remember trying to tell him, and even hitting
him on a few occasions, and then, when Mother tried to convince
me to leave my brother alone, I asked, "Where did Daddy go?
Is he in heaven?"
told me that there was no heaven and no god, that my father had
died and was gone, that it was no good trying to figure out where
he had gone to, it was more important to find a way to get along
without him. These were impossible statements to comprehend. What
I did comprehend was that my father was not there on my 8th or 9th
or 10th birthday. He no longer walked me to school. He no longer
read stories to me, and that was something that we all enjoyed.
He always made it a point to read to us. My grandfather Del Rio
(my mother's father) told me how my father read Lewis Carrol and
T. S. Eliot to me when I was in my mother's womb.
father was a poet and it took me a few years of living without him
and getting to the point where a birthday might actually arrive
without my specifically thinking of him, before I realized that
the one way I might retrieve him was through words. It was around
this time (I was 15), that I began to consciously detest my mother
- for not saving my father, for what she had become after he killed
himself - and to realize that his poem, The Profane Comedy, was
the only way I would ever begin to understand for myself the kind
of man that he was. My mother had little regard for his poetry and
she could never get beyond the bile which came up any time I tried
to talk to her about him or his work. She could offer me no insight
into the man which was other than pure venom for having left us
all so rudely.
through my college years I became more sensitive to my mother's
responses (although I would have to say that I was still adolescent),
and at that point I was thoroughly embarked upon this obsession
of mine to know my father. I had decided to become an English major
in order to study the works to which he referred in his poem. I
was sure that I could understand the man if I could understand his
work. And that was all I had. I was the unfinished work he left
behind. I just wanted my father back, and I still do.
before I talk about the path which I took to begin interpreting
this 100 page poem, I want to note briefly how I felt about the
poem in those intervening years. Of course, I knew it was in the
house after my father died, and I recall looking at it in his files
once or twice, surreptitiously because I felt my mother would be
upset if she knew I was going through his things. But, even as a
curious 10 and 12 year old, the poem was a heiroglyph to me. I could
not follow even the first page, and never had any idea what the
rest of the poem contained. I would just turn the pages, looking
at the three-lined stanzas, the occasional irregularities in those
stanzas, the names of the individuals who populate the pages...
was in no way detached from the mystery of his intent; like Fing's
sense of gravity and light in the poem, I was inside an incomprehensible
universe, perpetually subject to forces that surrounded me, but
which could not be touched. Intuitively, I felt like my father must
be among the light and the gravity, because, holding the pages in
my hands, I knew he was with me. I would not linger too long, but
as I approached my 16th year, I began to feel the compulsion to
know. As I cultivated my disdain for my mother, I became assured
that my father wanted me to seek him out in his poem.
the sly, in 1984, I photocopied the poem and began to read it in
earnest in my bed at night. I never spoke with anyone about it,
and I had no idea what the connections and references in it were
about. I had no idea even what the title referred to. I did know
that Abraham Lincoln was Fing's guide through Perdition, but I had
to look up what Perdition was. And I must admit, although I felt
quite grown up when I grasped a little sense in what the pages held,
I got very little out of my first readings, except to conclude that
I needed to study a great deal more.
when I got to college, I took courses on American history, because
the poem was clearly a trip backward through American history, and
on poetry, so that I could get a sense of how my father conceived
and structured this poem in his head. During one of my vacations
at home (Christmas 1987), I told my mother that I wanted to go through
my father's papers. She was perhaps a bit suspicious, knowing how
I had sided over the previous years with my absent father against
her, but she sat with me and helped me put his notebooks in chronological
order. This was certainly the beginning of my rapprochement with
I discovered startled me. My father had a score of notebooks filled
with poetry from when he was 16 until his death, and his prose was
most illuminating. My mother told me that she had little interest
in his journals; she called them "his intellectual shit."
My mother gave me responsibility for them, but I did not take them
with me because I might never have studied again if I had them with
me. The single most important revelation the notebooks afforded
me was that my father considered himself, individually, as some
pinnacle of the American Dream. Over and again in his journals,
as a lonely 18 year old out in the careless collegiate world, his
main concern seemed to be how he could possibly live up to the responsibility
of being an American when he felt so badly about the way that America
was headed. His thoughts were muddled and mine were too. He had
issues with his own father, who was an immigrant's son, and grandfather,
who had climbed the corporate ladder to achieve status in the upper-middle
class world of Chicago in the 1950's. My father hated corporate
America, but it is what gave him his opportunity. And, even though
my father was a few years older than his peers, he had a great deal
of support when it came to hatred of convention and normalcy in
America in the 1960's.
these journals actually have nothing to do with the poem. Except
for one diary which he kept during his last year, my father stopped
keeping a journal about three years before he began The Profane
Comedy. I knew I still had a great deal more study to undertake
before I could comprehend the poem, but this was the time that I
began to imagine that my father had actually produced a work of
art that was comparable to any great literary work in 20th century
America. The poem was vastly more advanced than the journals. I
still did not understand it, but it's immensity overwhelmed me.
Like a blind man touching and feeling an elephant, slowly I conceived
of the enormity of my father's last project.
was at this point that I did something previously unimaginable to
me - I showed the poem to two people. As far as I knew, nobody,
other than myself and Yorick (not even my mother), had ever seen
this poem; I had held it as closely as I had ever held any secret
or shame. But, because of my discoveries, my rapprochement with
my mother, my own development, and my close relations with my roommate,
Alfred Craig, I showed Alfred The Profane Comedy. He was immediately
won over to it. We would get stoned and read it out loud to each
other, laughing hysterically at the vulgarity and strangeness. I
had never understood my father's humorous intent until I shared
the language. I began to feel such a tremendous love for the poem
that it was difficult to ever get it out of my mind. And Freddy
encouraged me in my efforts to get to the bottom of it.
encouragement, plus the opportunity to work during the summer (of
1988) in the English Department at my school, propelled me to show
the poem to my most influential professor, Anthony Person. I was
exceptionally nervous the day I showed it to him. Despite my affection
for Prof. Person, he was less specifically affectionate toward me,
maintaining professorial aloofness in all respects with his students,
except in his love of literature. I stumbled in trying to tell him
the particulars of my life (English professors in general always
want you to state your thesis in the first paragraph, and I had
trouble with that in this circumstance). We both tensed up when
I mentioned my father's suicide.
when I presented the poem, he immediately responded by chuckling
about the title. My impression about the title had always been that
my father had written a profane and comedic poem, and that was why
he titled it as such. But Prof. Person pointed out that the title
was probably a reference to Dante's Divine Comedy, a poem that Prof.
Person had studied extensively and would next semester be offering
in a class. If there is a single hinge upon which I have swung in
going from ignorance to knowledge about this poem, it was this meeting.
I immediately signed up for Prof. Person's Dante class.
became a student of epic poetry, and over the next several years,
from undergraduate through graduate school, I studied Homer, Ovid,
Dante, Spenser, Milton, Coleridge, Eliot, and Ginsburg. All the
time I kept going back to my father's poem, I kept studying his
notebooks. Prof. Person had also clued me in to going through my
father's library, which was not too large, in order to get a sense
of what he was reading while he was writing his poem.
to say, there are more authors than those stated above who are integrally
connected with my father's thinking as presented in the poem, among
them, Francis Bacon, Laurence Sterne, James Agee, and Michel Foucault.
And in presenting the poem as I have, there is more of my personal
history which is unnecessary to dwell on in this preface. These
introductory remarks will have to suffice, for it is the poem which
reveals all. I cannot say that I have reached the end of my obsession
with it, for I have not recovered my father, but I can say that
I believe that my father's work is equal to any of the authors above
stated, and I think he felt the same way.
summary then, I trust that these notes will allow others the opportunity
to journey through my father's mind and poetry in a more direct
manner than I was given, and that others may enjoy the poem as greatly
as I have. Not necessarily secondary to these hopes, I am looking
for support in the completion of this annotation project, as what
is represented at this website is a fraction of the rest of The
Profane Comedy. I have no doubt that this poem is publishable, as
is, but the notes will require more. . . Please feel free to respond
to this work, professionally or otherwise, at firstname.lastname@example.org,
and go here to read the poem.