CHRIS RICE COOPER is a newspaper writer, feature stories writer, poet, fiction writer, photographer, and painter. She maintains a blog at https://chrisricecooper.blogspot.com. She has a Bachelor's in Criminal Justice and completed all of her poetry and fiction workshops required for her Master’s in Creative Writing with a focus on poetry. She, her husband Wayne, sons Nicholas and Caleb, cats Nation and Alaska reside in the St. Louis area.
Wednesday, March 16, 2016
Poet David Allen Sullivan Explores Love And Loss Amongst Father And Sons in "BLACK ICE"
Sullivan described Black Ice as “a book of poems about my father’s dementia
and death, as well as the complex relationships between fathers and sons.”
Life for David Sullivan, the youngest of
three sons, changed forever on December 23, 1981, when his father, Denis
Garland Sullivan, was in an automobile accident.
Black Ice 2
My dad’s hands were yanked
from the Datsun’s steering wheel
as the bucket seat
back broke and he sailed
past racing telephone poles
and slurring pine trees
to shatter rear glass
and smash a pick-up’s grille, then
drop back as the car
met the snowbank’s fist.
His brain in its liquid case
slammed against bone,
contused as he stilled.
Back windshield diamonded him
in a blood-mask, streaked
by snowpack the dazed
truck driver used to staunch flow.
broke through deadened ears
We’re thrown by what we don’t know.
Ice slides beneath us.
Denis Sullivan survived the horrific
accident but lost a huge piece of his identity by suffering a brain injury that
left him with frontal lobe dementia, mental illness, the loss of basic tasks
such as communicating, reading, and writing; but, even more tragically, he lost
his livelihood, but fortunately only temporarily.
father taught political science at Dartmouth College.He specialized in analyzing politicians
facial gestures, and their effect on viewers.”
have long been described as wearing many masks –and masks is a great
description to describer all of these poems:the masks describe Denis’s livelihood, which at the time seemed hopeless
that he would be able to resume due to his injuries.But Denis returned to teaching, which amazed
everyone, and remained teaching for the next twenty years until his death on
June 8, 2013.
In grad school he trained himself
watched video clips,
displays of power,
of fear – and here I am face
to face with a man
who withheld himself.
Excerpt from “Reading Faces”
Masks also describe the different
personalities and routines each of the family members had to maintain in order
to function – father became son, son became father, wife became mother, husband
“Papa, you can’t talk.”
Why not?He bellows, You are.
Heads angrily turn
attacks a slow mangalam
and I find way
can mend this, let it come.”Turn,
kiss his cheek.He calms.
Excerpt from “Attending an
Black on the windows
for the months his wife held him
when he balled up, cried, or Fuck-you’d
Excerpt from “Darknesses”
Eventually Denis did learn to read and write
and, as part of his therapy and recovery, wrote in an accident recovery journal
which gave him a new mask – that of rebirth and hope.
“As I feel
better the sun shines more brightly and as I see the sun I walk as close as I
can towards it.”
-from my father’s accident recovery
Excerpt from “Appetites”
These journal entries are quoted throughout the
Ice: 108 pages of 72 poems divided into three parts:
2.Sons of Fathers
3.Enter the Fire
Sullivan described the writing of Black
Ice as a
“This collection has been a powerful journey for me. A way
of reconciling myself to my Dad's dementia and death, but of also recognizing
the gifts that occurred even as he declined.”
The entire family experienced a decline –his
three sons, Marc, Kevin, and David especially his wife Margaret (Peggy), who
had to give up her dream of pursuing a PhD in art.
he’d teach again,
relearn how to read and write.She
Would be confidante and guide, her dream
of a PhD suspended.
Excerpt from “Darknesses”
Denis has to wear a mask of pretending
that he can read a book by Dr. Seuss to his granddaughter, David’s daughter
He holds Dr. Seuss
while my daughter turns pages.
Whispers his panic:
I can’t read.We laugh.
“Neither can she.Make it
yellow eggs . . .
Excerpt from “Judge”
Despite this suffering and this
separateness father and son connect – in a very rare moment where Denis is the
father figure and David his son.
He doesn’t ask why I wake him,
folds me against his chest –
forty-odd years whispered away
as he strokes my hair.
His condition grows him kinder.
Excerpt “Back Home”
It’s painful to read of Denis’s suffering
– from the physical of not having control of his own body in “All Fall Down”; not able to tell time
in “Drawing the Clock’s Face”; the
loss of hearing in “Back Home”; the
loss of his independence in “Life and
Death Before Breakfast.”; not able to twist the plastic rig from an orange
juice jug in “Assisted Living”, but
most tragically he seems to have lost the ability to remember.
Clock reads 1 a.m.
Where am I again?I blink,
and my father leans
over the couch where
I’d been sleeping:David?
I pat him calmer,
repeat Mom’s itinerary,
then lead him to bed.
Excerpt from “Hay
Despite this sadness there are sparks of
triumph – where Denis does remember – he remembers how to express love to his
son by stroking his hair in “Back Home”;
he remembers how to play Hearts in ‘Judge”;
and perhaps the most emotional compelling memory is described in “Touched” when father and son visit the
mbulu ngulu figures at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum.
My dad’s hand rises
to stroke shimmery metal.
Panicked, I look around.
Each sculpted elder aches to
have their features shined
by attentive hands
and the grit of sand – the gods
feel when we touch them.
Dad guides my palm to
the glint.When you were young
felt like this.
Excerpt from “Touched”
Making 101” David Allen Sullivan makes a mask for his own son Jules
Barivan.This mask symbolizes the new
roles grandfather, father, and son must live out– roles that are both familiar
He disappears under headlines and blurred car crashes.
wet noodles, he says until his mouth’s sealed
and only nostrils allow him to breath. Strip
after strip builds him up, a hardening mirror.
Quietness discomforts me.I
want him still to need
what I have to give.When he
pulls it off
his double lies in his hands.He stares into it
then turns it over.Does this really look like me?
Excerpt from “Mask Making
The final mask to be unveiled is the
death of Denis depicted in the poem “Beached”,
where Sullivan describes his father’s death as the red ocean ebbing.In the poem, Sullivan, who is with his
brother Kevin, reads his father a poem by Mary Oliver.
I read a poem.
Kev lowers one hand
to the laboring heart and says:
Go if you
stay if you
Ocean swell lifts, a red wave
rises through neck and
face, suffuses him
with color and a last breath
“My brother really did say these things, and my father did
take in a breath, let it out, and was gone.Amazing when something like that happens, and you suddenly realize that
some part of him was still conscious, still with us, and still aware of our
touch and words. Spirit dwells inside, even as the body dies.”
Out of the collection “Beached”
was the most compelling and emotional for Sullivan to write.
"As I composed this poem, near the end of finishing the book, it
felt like a way to unite the separate strands. And in that goodbye my older brother and I were united in a
special way. That send off of our shared father was a way of sending us off as
well. Transformed. It was a privileged time where the spirit of our father was
manifest, and its leaving a gift."