1140: Fish, Serpent, Egg, Scorpion by Kwame Dawes

202406014 Slowdown

1140: Fish, Serpent, Egg, Scorpion by Kwame Dawes


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

Years ago, I went away for the weekend. My teenage son said he was spending the night at a friend’s house. His friend told his mother he was doing a sleepover at our house. Neither parent verified adult supervision. Both boys invited a few others. Then, the small party grew to a hundred people who congregated in my backyard, nursing red cups. A neighbor’s daughter snuck out of their house. So, my neighbor called the police. I flew home, and — fretted for my son’s future. The next morning we argued again but, then, on that day, we cleared the way for an enduring love that we care for now and know will last until our last breaths.

Today’s poem highlights that cycle of hard truths and compassion passed between fathers and sons.

Fish, Serpent, Egg, Scorpion
by Kwame Dawes

                                                  for Kekeli 

                  For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks
                  finds; and to him who knocks, the door will
                  be opened. What father among you, if his son
                  asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?
                  Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?
                                                                                               —Luke 10-12

There were no tears, but in the commotion
of these emotional days, the impetus for tears,
when I said to him, there in the cold street,
wearing our sporty winter jackets, “I am your gift,
this body before you, still here to say, Let’s take a walk, son,
me, this complex of secure love. I am not
your enemy, not a murky pond of dangers. Don’t you
know that when I was your age, my hunger
for a shelter in a man’s heart was already dust?
He was dead, gone, and all I had
was the surrogates of his letters, the clues
of a narrative of love in his fiction and poems,
the snippets of affection from his old friends –
hardly enough – but all I had upon which to build
an edifice of meaning. And I wrote then,
World, world, world, that I have lost – full of every
melodrama of mourning, though it was never
hyperbole, never a lie. I said to him, “So here I am.”
And my voice was phlegmy and earnest,
“Here I am for you, so use me, feed on me,
I am your father, use me.” Perhaps we must all
say this, or have thought to say this, we who father
sons. Maybe. Every poem has its own ancestry,
but this was us, me embracing him, and him saying,
“Sorry, Dad, I know.” And even now, it breaks me
that I could present him with my body,
my mortality, my leaving him; that I could let
him feel the start of his long mourning before it
has to come. I said, “I could die today”, not as hyperbole,
but as a truth that runs through my veins, my lungs.
This is love, then, a father and a son, him handsome,
fluid, tender, the boy and man, all there, and me
mourning for his bereavement. It was a passing thing.
We re-entered the house with the noises of the season,
laughter, even as if that moment between us
could be set aside. Of course, we know it will not be.
I know that this father must say again and again,
“I am made for you, and I will not promise you a fish
and then hand you the threat of a serpent.”

"Fish, Serpent, Egg, Scorpion" by Kwame Dawes. Used by permission of the poet.