John Philip Drury – Prose Poems

John Philip Drury LEP&W V3 Dec 2022

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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Three December 2022.

Prose Poems, poems by John Philip Drury.

Fishing Pier and Hunting Lodge

An old man in hip boots stands in shallow water, just before it merges into the Chesapeake Bay, reeling in his fishing line and then casting again, re-baiting as the need arises with chunks of peeler crab he keeps in a pocket. He’s catching rockfish, the Maryland term for striped bass. He looks old, but he will get much older and toward the end of his life will build his own sailboat and sail alone on the bay. He looks at home standing in the water but does not know how to swim. Like other watermen, his skills involve staying afloat, keeping his vessel from capsizing, tonging for oysters and pulling up crab traps. He served for fifty years as commander of the Maryland Oyster Fleet, which means that above all else he’s a politician. He’s wearing a floppy hat because it’s sunny, but wind has started blowing, so he’s tied the hat under his bristly chin.

His daughter, the opera singer, has inherited his beautiful curls. Her press releases claim he’s a singer too, but his performances usually take place at night, on a boat or in the yacht club, when he’s drinking and belts out “Old Man River.” She’s given up touring for the time being and is wading in the bay, tentative in her black swimsuit that shows off her buxom figure. She’s learning how to swim. My mother, wearing a bathing cap and a frilly pink swimsuit, is teaching her, encouraging her to relax while she cradles her in her arms.

My father, a skinny veteran who wants to be a singer, is fishing on a rickety, zig-zag pier, but unlike Captain Amos he’s not catching anything. He’s singing, but the wind is picking up strength and I can’t hear the words, although it sounds like a straining attempt at an aria.

I’m sitting by myself about halfway down the pier, wishing I could swim but prohibited because of the ointment and bandage on the back of my right knee where a spider bit me. At least that’s how the two Carolyns—the singer and my mother—have diagnosed the oozing pustule, which looks like a miniature volcano.

The scene has taken on a glow, like a picture in a tiny shrine, lit by a votive candle. My wife would call it a “flashbulb memory.” It reminds me of Proust, how tripping over the uneven paving stones in the Baptistery of San Marco recalls a similar stumble in Combray. Wind invokes Wingate, a spit of uneasy land across from Lower Hooper’s Island, which is uninhabited. I gaze at a group portrait: Captain Amos, my mother, my father, and the “glamorous soprano” who’s come between my parents.

The wind accelerates, and clouds that appeared like a mountain range over a long, flat island and the wide bay have nearly reached us, lightning hitting the water and thunder grumbling. We retreat to a hunting lodge by the pier, where a caretaker latches the shutters and locks the door. We’re all afraid, except for Captain Amos, as rain tattoos the tin roof and wind rattles the shutters and whines under the doors and down the chimney into the big fireplace where the caretaker lights tinder for a fire, even though it’s August.

The funny thing is, I don’t remember the storm passing, or trotting out to the Chevrolet as the last drops of rain peter out. The windy, sunny day on the edge of the water always ends with a summer squall that traps us in the hunting lodge, like characters in Sartre’s No Exit. It’s the last time we find ourselves together in one room, a temporary refuge from the permanent storm, so I hold on and won’t let the light blow out.

First Dream of My Mother
after Her Death

My mother often confided that when she dreamed about me, I was always nine years old. Eventually I realized that she was nine when she watched her father commit suicide in his rock garden. She claimed that she couldn’t remember anything before then.

My first post-mortem dream about my mother happened a few nights after she died. Dressed in a gown tied in back, she lay on a gurney in a hospital room. The doctor told me he was going to operate next week, and I could be present, during surgery, if I wanted to hold her brains.

My mother was in good spirits but looked pale and felt tired. I crawled beside her on the gurney and cuddled. “Why, thank you,” she said. “That’s my boy.”

Knick-knacks crowded the moveable bedside table. Yes, I was ready to hold her brains in my hands, like water cupped from a fountain, and let nothing spill. I would assist in the operation, and then I would ask my mother everything I had forgotten to ask, gathering her thoughts and recollections.

After I got up, left the room, and started to drive away, I thought, “Wait a minute. She was unconscious; she was in a coma. Then she got cremated. I’ve got to get back and see her while I’ve got the chance.” But the roads went one way, and traffic was heavy, and I kept driving farther and farther in the opposite direction, trying to find a way to turn around, but I could never get back to the hospital parking lot.

Disclosure about My Mother

My mother was supposed to be a boy, and she was interested in things that boys liked, especially tools. She liked to repair things all of her life, and always kept a well-stocked tool box. She rewired broken lamps. She glued back pieces of veneer that the antique furniture shed. She touched up the oil portraits of her ancestors, Caleb and Priscilla, with magic markers and black ball-point pens. She was always fixing the broken remnants of what she inherited.

But my mother, when she was little Bobby, hated the dolls her mother Sadie gave her, although she never let on and kept the secret of her distaste to herself. The collection of antique dolls with china heads and bisque heads and hand-sewn gowns continued to grow as well-intentioned friends of the family bestowed more dolls upon her for Christmas and birthdays. Eventually there was an article in The Daily Banner about her celebrated collection, with a photograph of my unsmiling mother surrounded by a mob of overdressed dolls.

Over and over in her life, Bobby was thwarted, prevented from doing what she might have done. In high school, she excelled at courses in the academic track and wanted to go to college at William and Mary. She boasted that she had the highest score on a standardized test for high-school students in the state of Maryland. She had inherited enough money to pay for her own higher education. But her mother forced her to go to National Park College, a two-year school for wealthy young ladies that her sister Sarah had attended in Washington, D.C. “Sadie made me go to a finishing school,” Bobby said, “and it sure finished me.”

She didn’t get beyond her freshman year at National Park before events forced her to return home to take care of her mother, who was severely injured in the automobile accident that killed her sister, saved by the suitcase she held on her lap in the back seat. Accidents determined much of Bobby’s life. She had to react to things that happened to her—deaths of loved ones and the birth of an only child, unexpected arrivals and sudden departures—and learn to be crafty and contrary, to act rashly and impulsively, to misbehave.

© John Philip Drury

John Philip Drury is the author of four full-length poetry collections: The Disappearing Town and Burning the Aspern Papers (both from Miami University Press), The Refugee Camp (Turning Point Books), and most recently Sea Level Rising (Able Muse Press). He has also written Creating Poetry and The Poetry Dictionary, both from Writer’s Digest Books. His awards include an Ingram Merrill Foundation fellowship, two Ohio Arts Council grants, and the Bernard F. Conners Prize from The Paris Review.

He was born in Cambridge, Maryland, and grew up in Bethesda, raised by his mother and a former opera singer she called her cousin but secretly considered her wife. After dropping out of college and losing his draft deferment during the Vietnam War, he enlisted in the Army to learn German and served undercover in the West German Refugee Camp near Nuremberg. He used benefits from the GI Bill to earn degrees from Stony Brook University, the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

After teaching at the University of Cincinnati for 37 years, he is now an emeritus professor and lives with his wife, fellow poet LaWanda Walters, in a hundred-year-old house on the edge of a wooded ravine.

2 Replies to “John Philip Drury – Prose Poems”

  1. These are so poignant, John, and so vivid in their details. Your dream! Just stunning.

    I loved the description of your unsmiling mother “surrounded by a mob of overdressed dolls”–perfect.

    Thanks for all the pleasure, sentence after sentence.

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