I learned to speak to my father in slow motion
with meticulous, exaggerated lips. Words were the tether
that kept eyes fascinated and locked; if his eyes wandered,
my words would scatter like beads spilled from a strand.
I picked my way through the minefield of “b”s, “p”s and “m”s,
where “pouring batter” could be “boring matter,”
and “papa” could be “mama” could be “baby.” I knew
the penmanship of teeth and tongue and mouth must be
impeccable. My hands could sculpt the air like clay to make
ephemeral works of art. I knew the pitfalls of sending smoke signals
on a windy day. Eyebrows, shoulders, could be shaped into signs
not found in any manual. Even before words, I was fluent
in the nuances of grimaces and sighs, understanding long before
I had mastered speech that he could never hear my voice.
I was the choreographer of every conversation we ever had—
but it has been more than forty years now since
I danced for him. Words have become mere sounds to me;
I even speak them in the dark. Without his eyes to hear them,
they burn off like mist in the glare of morning.
Melanie McCabe is the author of His Other Life: Searching For My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams, winner of the 2016 University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize. A book of poems, What The Neighbors Know, was published by FutureCycle Press in 2014. A first collection, History of the Body, was published by David Robert Books in 2012. Her poems have appeared in Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Massachusetts Review, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and Cincinnati Review, among other publications.