Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 818
As though the reader were a listening friend, Hudgins’s first two lines declare a personal “fact” in a simple sentence with plain words. “One day,” he surmises, someone will call, and he’ll hear that his father has died. It will be somewhat expected, however, because his father is elderly, and “he’s ready.” It’s not unusual to hear aging or seriously ill people claim they’re “ready” to die. The poem begins in familiar language with a familiar situation.
It is Hudgins’s habit, however, to peel the layers off the familiar until it yields something more pungent and particular. In these lines, he begins to explore more precisely, and individually, just what “he’s ready” means to his father. Here we learn that his father’s religious faith is what enables this readiness to die. His faith has assured him that there is a “world beyond this world.” Beyond death, there is something, not nothing. And the way his father talks about that next world has the tone of someone excited about a trip, a travel adventure. At least that’s the way it strikes the ear of his son, and in the poem, it becomes a simile: “he talks . . . as though his reservations have / been made.” It even sounds as though “he wants to go.”
But after all, this is death, a serious sort of trip, so “I think he wants to go” is quickly qualified in the next line with “a little bit.” The poem is written from the doubting son’s point of view, and we can know about the father’s attitude toward death only through the filter of what the son thinks and feels. Perhaps this qualifier emerges from the son’s own position of doubt. Perhaps he reads into his father’s “sureness” an occasional tentative undertone. Nevertheless, the travel metaphor continues as the son notices his father’s desire to go elsewhere “building up,” a kind of “itch,” the poem calls it, colloquially. The son speculates that his father is looking forward to an eternity of “fresh” worlds, where all things are new, innocent, untainted. On the other hand, perhaps the landscape of the hereafter will be “older,” akin to those times and places more proximate to Paradise. One thing seems sure: the aging man’s vision of heaven scarcely resembles this present world.
Until now, the poem has spoken almost solely of the father’s attitude toward his own death. At this point, the son enters, and the differences between their understandings of the “next life” emerge clearly. The father expects the son to “follow him” to that place, where their reunion will be full of affection and good humor. In fact, death will be much like birth, the poem implies. The son followed the father into life. Likewise, the assumption goes, he will follow him in death, another kind of passage like birth, to a new world. At least that is the optimism the father holds out. The son, in line 13, has a different position: “I do not think he’s right.”
In short bursts of contrast, line 14 declares simply: “He’s ready. I am not.” It is neither a simple, nor a “cheerful” matter for the son, this saying “good-bye.” And he certainly feels no assurance that his father can make his own passage from life to death more comfortable simply by preceding him. The father’s earlier “trip” will not of itself “make my later trip go well.”
The “trip” metaphor culminates in the last lines with the image of both son and father traveling by sea. In the process, “sinking ship,” a cliché for doom and death, recovers its original metaphoric freshness through the particulars of this father-son relationship. The son sees himself “on deck” of his own ship, making his own journey in this life. But the poem clearly implies it is not the same ship as his father’s. In fact, from his vantage point “on deck,” the son is “convinced” his father’s “ship’s gone down.” His father is not safe; he’s submerged in something vast, cold, and deep.
Hudgins’s father, however, is convinced of something quite different: in the next life, he’ll be safely docked, and his son’s ship will eventually arrive at the same port. “I’ll see him standing on the dock,” says the son, exuberant in his “Welcome back.” The phrase could have ended simply in a Welcome, but the presence of back implies something of a return that cannot be ignored. What is it that the father believes his son will be returning to? His presence? That pure relationship that accompanied his birth? Or is it more complex, theologically speaking? Is he welcoming him “back” to something prior to both of their lives on Earth, something both fresh and old, something like heaven?
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