"The Way It Is with My Father" by Hayden Saunier

Hayden Saunier is a poet and actor living near Philadelphia. Read the full text of this poem here. You can also read an interview with the poet at How a Poem Happens.

I was hooked first of all by this poem's title, which conveys neutrality (reportage) but also resignation: this is just "the way it is." This attitude of resignation is echoed later in the poem in the statement that there is "nothing to do but be here" at her father's bedside, presumably with her siblings who comprise the "we."

The title also offers two readings of the word "with." It can be read as an informal twist on that idea of reportage, as in "How are things with your father these days?" But the with of the title is also the first clue that the author as narrator will appear somewhere in the poem, however subtly. There's no I in this poem, only the my of the title and the we / us that appear much later, and the implied presence of the narrator "be[ing] here." There's also a very subtle our appearing within the first line in the naming of a "good hour," presumably an hour in which the poet and siblings are able to communicate directly with her father rather than simply sit and observe his state of being "adrift."

In the same way that the poet is referenced only indirectly, the emotion of the situation is not stated but implied—in fact, "tethered" like every character in this story (and like the short lines in stanzas 5 and 6: "Always he's tethered. / / As are we, alongside, watching / his hands worry the sheets"). The only overt emotion word in the poem finds its home in an image, converted into an observed action: "watching / his hands worry the sheets." The poet offers a dispassionate list of water-navigation tools (ways to attempt to control an outcome), "rudder, / paddle, outboard, sail," and a series of knots (ways to hold things in place), "bowline, clove hitch, sheet bend, square," then curves into a brief but powerful list of uncontrollable forces: "wind, current, tide."

As always, I'm taken in by the poem's music, which features an alternating melody of o and a sounds and long/short i sounds that somehow, as a whole, evoke the motion of water. Some of the strings of sound I love in this poem:

  • way, with, one / gunwales / watching, worry, we don't know which / working / we / were
  • one good hour, outboard, narrow, docked, own, nothing to do, long, canoe, above, rowed out, boy, alongside, worry, know, knots, bowline, clove, another force holds
  • adrift, its, tidy, sometimes, finds, Chickahominy river, bright sky, skiff, big ships, which, untie, clove hitch, bitter, if, wind, tide, his
  • days, paddle, sail, narrow / saw grass, father, always, watching, hands / square / all, hands

The reader feels, as the narrator presumably feels, both closely held and set adrift in this poem, with its juxtaposition of sailing imagery with the "tether" of multiple references to hands and holding.