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Recorded for Poem-a-Day, April 17, 2017.
About this Poem 

“For some time I have been thinking about narrative poems and the ways they can create dramatic tension. In this poem, I experimented with a kind of tonal flatness, as I didn’t want to take this story about my father’s struggle with brain cancer and turn it into melodrama. I also knew I needed to reward the reader’s attention by offering a moment of poetic lift—a leap toward the unknowable. That’s where the poem’s title entered into the story, and the illness I write about took the form of a malevolent god.”
—Mark Wunderlich

The God of Nothingness

My father fell from the boat.
His balance had been poor for some time.
He had gone out in the boat with his dog
hunting ducks in a marsh near Trempealeau, Wisconsin. 
No one else was near
save the wiry farmer scraping the gutters in the cow barn
who was deaf in one ear from years of machines—
and he was half a mile away.
My father fell from the boat
and the water pulled up around him, filled
his waders and this drew him down.
He descended into water the color of weak coffee.
The dog went into the water too,
thinking perhaps this was a game. 
I must correct myself—dogs do not think as we do—
they react, and the dog reacted by swimming
around my father’s head. This is not a reassuring story
about a dog signaling for help by barking,
or, how by licking my father’s face, encouraged him
to hold on. The dog eventually tired and went ashore
to sniff through the grass, enjoy his new freedom
from the attentions of his master,
indifferent to my father’s plight. 
The water was cold, I know that,
and my father has always chilled easily. 
That he was cold is a certainty, though
I have never asked him about this event. 
I do not know how he got out of the water.
I believe the farmer went looking for him
after my mother called in distress, and then drove
to the farm after my father did not return home. 
My mother told me of this event in a hushed voice,
cupping her hand over the phone and interjecting
cheerful non sequiturs so as not to be overheard. 
To admit my father’s infirmity
would bring down the wrath of the God of Nothingness
who listens for a tremulous voice and comes rushing in
to sweep away the weak with icy, unloving breath. 
But that god was called years before
during which time he planted a kernel in my father’s brain
which grew, freezing his tongue,
robbing him of his equilibrium.
The god was there when he fell from the boat,
whispering from the warren of my father’s brain,
and it was there when my mother, noting the time,
knew that something was amiss. This god is a cold god,
a hungry god, selfish and with poor sight.
This god has the head of a dog.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Wunderlich. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 17, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Wunderlich. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 17, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

Mark Wunderlich

Mark Wunderlich

Born in 1968, Mark Wunderlich won the Lambda Literary Award for his debut collection, The Anchorage.

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My privilege and my proof, pressing your eternal skin to mine—
I feel your fingers touching down on the crown of my head 

where I pray they remain during this life and in the next.  
The intricacies of your world astound me.

You flickered through the rooms where my mother