Essays

Thirty-One Tiny Failures and One Labyrinth: On Parenting and Writing

by Oliver de la Paz

Before I set out to write something about family or friends, I open with an apology. The apology is similar—“I’m sorry for writing this but I have to” or something to that effect, and then it’s then deleted with the next line.

***

I have been writing the same sequence for almost eight years. I suppose that’s not too long as far as works in progress go. But sometimes I feel like I’m chasing someone down a twisting pathway.

***

I grew up with allegory as a way to understand. This story can stand for this. This person is wicked. This person is good. This choice is flawed. This is a wise choice.

***

Two of my sons are on the autism spectrum. This pervades my daily life. We are supposed to “write what you know” and what I know and have known my ten years of fatherhood is that writing what I know is hard.

***

Meredith and I must’ve filled out at least a dozen questionnaires assessing this and that. We both found ourselves baffled at one point or enraged at another point. The questions felt somewhat accusatory. Like the boys were some case. Some project.

***

Labyrinthian. The paperwork was labyrinthian.

***

When I delete my apologies I can imagine the words are still ghosted in the pixels of my screen.

***

When we co-slept with L he would dig his fingers right into our eye sockets.

***

I do not know what having total creative freedom looks like. I give myself tasks—duties. My rituals involve organizing my sensory planes and lately organization has been impossible.

***

Human interaction is such a complicated thing. It is this complication which baffles my sons. Sarcasm. Subtlety. All the coded nods and micro-gestures of day-to-day interaction. A knowing glance. A smirk. An off-color joke. Labyrinthian.

***

My sons are having trouble making friends at school. They are each others best friend and because of this they speak their own language to each other. N will pull L closer and loudly exclaim this or that about a video game. L will smile. They have an audience and I’m pleased they have each other.

***

And how to articulate this as a writer and as a father. But as a father first?

***

L’s obsession with eyes continued until he was four. I had been called in to his daycare a few times because he had poked one child or another in the eye.

***

I apologize for writing about you, L. I apologize for writing about you, N.

***

[                                                                                                                                   ]

***

Alicia Ostricker punched me sharply in the arm after I told her I wasn’t writing about my kids.

***

Since 2013 I have been writing a sequence of poems loosely based around the Theseus and the Minotaur myth. I do not name the wanderer of the maze. The wanderer of the maze is simply “The Boy.”

***

I realized that I had been writing about my sons for several years in the form of this allegory.

***

This is unclear to most readers.

***

Sometimes it’s important to keep secrets.

***

You don’t have to “see” to know.

***

Here’s a fact: I have written 100 “Labyrinth” poems. Here is another fact: I wandered in their maze without understanding them for almost six years.

***

Here’s a fact: I am getting older and my wife is getting older and we acknowledge that our sons may not be able to care for themselves when we are gone. Here’s another fact: that understanding keeps me awake at night.

***

I remember rubbing my eyes after a fitful sleep. I remember looking at Meredith and seeing cuts from fingernails on her lids.

***

I’m writing what I know.

***

I also know this—I don’t want to be the person who fixes this version of my sons to the page. This understanding keeps me awake at night.

***

I wanted to understand my sons as well as a neurotypical parent with his own limitations and his own biases can understand a neurodiverse child. I am full of flaw and misconception. I am full of error.

***

And so is the language at my disposal to articulate an experience not mine.

***

I apologize for writing about you, L. I apologize for writing about you, N.

***

[                                                                                                                                   ]

***

from Labyrinth

The boy in the labyrinth remembers drums. Noise ricocheting from the skin into his chest. How his basket of ribs felt his heart spin around. A windmill path. Against the noise, he had stood with his eyes closed as his breath throttled out of him. The shape of his body seemingly squeezed out of the circle of his mouth. And in the void, without any other sound or light, the pulse of blood from behind his ears becomes the footsteps of his interruption. He. The face that is the hole at the center of the boy. Its leaving face. Its god face. The beast in his most glorious hefts his lungs forward.

***

He listens to the keen sound of water droplets strike their tinny notes. His tympanic membrane devours the sound wave. A drop from a goblet spilled to a sponge. Other sounds. Keratin scratched against limestone. Sparks from fur brushed against the outcroppings. Even the smallest click of teeth against the impossible seed misplaced here in the dark. Even the heartbeat. Especially the heartbeat from deep within his throat.

***

He doesn’t call it fear. He doesn’t call it anything. Just a feeling that starts as small as a child’s red cup held close to the chest. Cradled. Warmed by the heart’s lambent engine. Rather than a cup, could it be a bird? A rook, all wayward and shuddering. Wild-eyed in the dark wineskin of the boy’s body? Or is his pulse no pulse at all, but an expectation. Like the company pain keeps? Like the half-man, half-bull running the length of his paddock wondering about the symmetry of his horns and the weight he bears.

***

The boy in the labyrinth hears the music constantly. He hears it part stone. Vertices of sound waves press their tongues against the hewn walls. There, in the dark, scales  play. Someone practices notes, ascending and descending–veined lines of songs from the heart of something untraceable. Song parts stone. The song rends the labyrinth in a flourish. A movement risen from the center of false starts and false loves. From the center of the boy’s mind where the light is visible. Where maw leads to melt.

 


 

Oliver de la Paz is the author of four collections of poetry, Names Above HousesFurious Lullaby (SIU Press 2001, 2007), and Requiem for the Orchard (U. of Akron Press 2010), winner of the Akron Prize for poetry chosen by Martìn Espada, and Post Subject: A Fable (U. of Akron Press 2014).  He is the co-editor with Stacey Lynn Brown of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (U. of Akron Press 2012).  He co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American Poetry and serves on the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Board of Trustees. A recipient of a NYFA Fellowship Award and a GAP Grant from Artist Trust, his work has appeared in journals like Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, Tin House, Chattahoochee Review, and in anthologies such as Asian American Poetry:  The Next Generation. He teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.

About the Series

“On Failure” is a series conceived by Keetje Kuipers and the editors of Poetry Northwest, featuring essays from a range of poets that investigate the practice of failure, both as poet and citizen. Each featured writer will present a work of their own that they see as a failure, and offer a chance to peek behind the curtain at their creative process. Other entries in the series can be found here.