Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Poet David Allen Sullivan Explores Love And Loss Amongst Father And Sons in "BLACK ICE"

Christal Cooper

All excerpts given copyright privilege by David Allen Sullivan and Turning Point Books

David Allen Sullivan’s
Masks:  A Love Story Between Father & Son

“The poems are about the changing natures we undergo throughout our lives. The masks we adopt and shed. The ways in which we are greater than the sum of what we can remember.”

David Allen Sullivan on Black Ice 

       This past September of 2015 Turning Point Books published David Allen Sullivan’s third poetry collection Black Ice.

       Sullivan’s other two collections are Strong-Armed Angels and Every Seed of the Pomegranate.

       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.
radiator’s shrill

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.
       “My father taught political science at Dartmouth College.  He specialized in analyzing politicians facial gestures, and their effect on viewers.” 

       Politicians 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
on politicians,

watched video clips,
interrogated facades-
displays of power,

untended flinches
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 became child.

 “Papa, you can’t talk.”
Why not?  He bellows, You are.
Heads angrily turn

as Ramaswami
attacks a slow mangalam
and I find way

to prayer.  “Whatever
can mend this, let it come.”  Turn,
kiss his cheek.  He calms.

Excerpt from “Attending an Indian Concert.”

Black on the windows
for the months his wife held him
when he balled up, cried, or Fuck-you’d
the world. 

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 journal

Excerpt from “Appetites”

These journal entries are quoted throughout the book Black Ice: 108 pages of 72 poems divided into three parts:

1.     Daily Diminutions
2.     Sons of Fathers
3.     Enter the Fire

Sullivan described the writing of Black Ice as a
therapeutic journey.
       “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.

       She believed 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 Amina Barivan.

He holds Dr. Seuss
while my daughter turns pages.
Whispers his panic:

I can’t read.  We laugh.
“Neither can she.  Make it up.”
He wants 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?
Where has Peggy gone?

I pat him calmer,
repeat Mom’s itinerary,
then lead him to bed.

Excerpt from “Hay Caracoles!”

       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.

Gallery’s empty.
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
your skin felt like this.

Excerpt from “Touched”


In “Mask 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 and strange.

He disappears under headlines and blurred car crashes.
Feels like 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 101”

       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 want to,

stay if you need to.
Ocean swell lifts, a red wave
rises through neck and

face, suffuses him
with color and a last breath
he releases.

Excerpt from “Beached”

            “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."

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