Poem: The Smell of Tweed and Tobacco

I cannot read this poem of my father publicly without weeping, though I periodically try and always fail. It became the title poem of my collection about relationships, families and friends.

The Smell of Tweed and Tobacco

My old man, that’s what
we called our fathers then,
as in my old man can lick your old man
And here I am remembering, at an age where
I myself could be accurately called
by those same terms

Well of course we loved each other
It goes without saying and so I’ve said it
And it rings true. rolls from the tongue,
because that’s the way it was with us
I kissed him on the lips from my earliest memory,
    unselfconsciously until the day he died
No turned cheeks for us, I remember brilliantly
his arms around me,
the smell of tweed and tobacco

Locked in that embrace,
the same for love or combat
Only a minor variance in the hold,
but who could know
at such a tender age, the warfare of generations,
the minefields in backyards,
playing with loaded guns

That darker side of growing up had
unexplained sharp edges
But it’s darkness that shapes the man
and gives dimension to what
otherwise would be too innocent a memory
Flat and plain and way too smooth to honestly

Each friend, each enemy and love,
knew just a piece of him
Myself as well, and I saw him largely
through a youthful prism, the colors of his
character depending on the light and angle,
an intensity that blinded me
and made him many men, all heroes

There was a time, when I was just fifteen
and finally asked my dad
about a thin blue line that ran from his
elbow to shoulder
Not a scar, but something near to that,
just below the skin
He said when he was about my age
he had a secret motorcycle
An Indian his parents didn’t know about,
he laid her down on cinders,
    limping home, cleaning torn flesh
    as best he could with a tooth-brush
and wearing long sleeves that summer
They never knew, or so he thought
and he winked at me

That story changed our whole relationship
I saw him differently, knew my dad had been a boy,
a kid a lot like me, who held back
dreams, sometimes tricked the edge of truth
and worked around his own father
Sometimes winning, sometimes not,
a momentary clarity between us
when we were briefly man and man

And yet he foreclosed all my young dreams,
to substitute his own
Took away my youthful indecision and carved it
to another shape
One that I lived and lied and struggled with,
as though I might slip inside his arm
with all those cinders and make him proud

Like just another secret hidden away
and tooth-brushed from truth,
    hugs and tweed-tobacco smell
bore me up and tore me down
I saw myself as him and tried to live his life,
    not mine
Years of that, decades now and sometimes
I still see more of him in me
    than any son should,
see of that fatherly craft,
    an intensity that is not ours
and yet we call a life in our name

In recurring dreams I take off,
piloting a plane that cannot clear the trees
Full power, pulling up, they loom and loom
those trees, then as disaster’s certain,
brush the wheels and clear
Ten years since I’ve had it now, but it’s out there,
looming still

The batter of a wall, that mason’s term
for slope that gives it strength
Larger at the top it falls
There’s pain, but strength in compression

If that weren’t hard enough to learn,
    it can’t be taught, just done or not,
Battering is understanding what to keep
and what to throw away
My middle years of struggle built too broad a top
and brought me down, a deconstructed man
Clawing through the rubble of wealth,
mortar of mortgage,
dust of broken promises,
then hosing down what was left,
what belonged, what’s well left behind
Not to judge his wall or anyone’s,
just see mine’s battered back

He died as well as he could
and not nearly well enough to suit him
A tortured wasting away,
a cancer that darkened his eyes
with fear,
    teaching me there was a better way
than he’d found to do it
Finally he flickered and was gone,
a guttered candle and that was that

What lasts? What’s left of him for me,
gone now nearly fifty years?
What of lessons and life, obligation and search,
of prism-colors?
Love lasts, or at least remembrances of it,
fine blue lines on arms, broad-shoulders
that hugged me, loved me and gave a damn

The smell of tweed and tobacco
Poetry Collection: The Smell of Tweed and Tobacco
This poem is included in
Jim Freeman's
poetry collection


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