In the 1960s, my father was handsome, lean and dark-haired, like Gregory Peck, my mother used to say.
He was the professor who took student demands at his college to the administration—too old to be a protester himself but young enough to believe in change. He was indeed Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. I took that for granted.
But circa 1969, what I remember most is lying on pillows in front of our record player, Dad beside me, my younger brother with blocks or trucks behind us, and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited ringing forth.
My father shifted the arm of the record player, setting the needle at the beginning of the last track on the second side. “Listen,” he said.
A few crackles and pops, then the first iconic chords of “Desolation Row”—not a Dylan hit, but one of his great tangled narratives, his musical poetry, as my father would say, comparing him to Walt Whitman or Robinson Jeffers or Ogden Nash.
They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
“Listen to this line, this next line,” my dad would whisper, as we leaned together before that wash of inexorable, acoustic chords. “It’s brilliant.”
Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars they’re just pretending to hide
The fortunetelling lady
Has even taken all her things inside
“Dylan is a poet,” he’d say.
By the time my father started writing poetry, in his early seventies, he was revealing far more of himself than I’d ever imagined he would.
I’m a writer. I’m supposed to be able to finesse experience, to put a fine gloss on all I describe in words. But with the onset of my father’s Parkinson’s Disease, I’ve become a fumbler. If I’ve found myself at all, it’s been through editing his poetry.
He still calls me his editor, in the fondest way, when he isn’t lost in memories of his South Dakota boyhood, the veiled traumas of his youth, some of which may actually have happened. My father can still observe his withering mind in action, commenting when it goes off the rails. He’s not just traveling two tracks—reality and denial—but an Escher-like plethora of railroad lines and empty staircases.
He says his brain splits everything like a crazy pipe organ, but my father can still focus. I don’t know how much longer this bittersweet stretch of time will last, but going over his poems sometimes turns him sharp again, even analytical. Even on the summer morning he was supposed to move to a group home, he disagreed with a revision I’d made.
In a poem he wrote about Catullus’s famous elegy to his dead brother, I had changed my father’s use of “Ave, Frater, Ave Atque Vale” to “atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.” My edit came from Catullus’s original, written almost 2,000 years ago.
Yet my father insisted on “Ave, Frater, Ave Atque Vale.” He liked its dirge-like rhythm; he wanted his own English translation, too: “Hail, Brother, and Forever Fare Thee Well.”
I told him this sounded more like Tennyson’s nineteenth-century “Frater Ave atque Vale.” Fine, he said. Yes. He loved Tennyson as much as Dylan or Whitman, and maybe even Catullus—and he was right, of course.
As Lady and I look out tonight
On Desolation Row
When we listened in front of the record player, decades ago, my father’s face would be free of tension, his hazel eyes alight. I wasn’t old enough then to wonder if he thought of himself writing poetry or the poems he’d always wanted to write but couldn’t—all the press of having a job and young children to raise and a wife who’d been in a psychiatric hospital and was still fragile—whether he longed for all his daily cares to wash clean.
But I saw joy as my father took in Bob Dylan’s great paean to the impossibility of understanding life and the inevitability of death. He let me in on the joy of words strung together, their music as sung.
I saw sorrow, too, but it’s his joy I remember.
By James L. Nichols
AVE, FRATER, AVE ATQUE VALE
(Hail, Brother, and Forever Fare Thee Well)
So spoke hard-living Catullus.
Not a bad line
For leaving far behind
This dirty little circus.
Better to visit
A loved one’s shrine
Than to linger longer
in this world’s slime.
Come, let us now enter
A world outside time
And thus to us eternal.
A different version of this piece originally appeared in RootSpeak.