The Poem

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Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 629

“The Father of My Country” is a long poem of more than 170 lines in which an adult woman looks back and tries to come to terms with what she feels was her father’s desertion. The poem is in the confessional mode—it deals with a private subject (in this case, family problems) in a public way. There is a feeling of taboo about the subject, and though the poem is not necessarily true in a literal sense, it does give the impression of being drawn from life.

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Although the poem is quite long, many of the lines are short, some of them consisting of a single word. The others are of irregular length, in free verse, and give the poem a free-swinging emotional feeling. The length of the poem allows space for Diane Wakoski to weave variations on her subject and to build to a climactic ending in which her feelings are somewhat resolved.

The poem deals with memories of the speaker’s father evoked in objects associated with him, such as telegrams and presents from faraway places. George Washington appears throughout the poem as a symbolic father figure the poet can use to talk about her own father and his frequent absences in her childhood. When she tells the reader that her father was an officer in the Navy and that fatherhood has “a military origin” (related to being authoritarian), the reader sees the connection she is making between General George Washington, first president and symbolic father of the United States, and her own father. When she says that George Washington “won the hearts/ of his country,” it becomes a reflection of her love for her father. This love is necessarily remote, since its object is rarely there.

Many of the statements in the poem are simple and direct. The speaker says about her father, “I’m not used to talking/ about him”; however, she also uses dreamlike surrealist images to depict intense emotional states. When she says that a woodpecker is pecking at her mouth, she is showing how wooden—that is, how unemotional—she has become in denying her feelings. The “bloody crest” of the woodpecker helps the reader feel how painful it is for her to break her silence.

Memories of her father seem to be evoked when she discovers a variety of objects associated with him in a trunk: “the trunk yielding treasures of/ a green fountain pen, heart shaped mirror,/ amber beads, old letters with brown ink.” She remembers, “You came, to me, and I at least six.” The number six, her age at the remembered time, inspires a catalog of sixes, everything from doilies to beer bottles, from baby teeth to hats. Perhaps the remembered visit from her father when she was six was so important that it multiplied itself in her memory. The effect of such multiplication is dreamlike, and the passage ends with a memory of a frightening dream with erotic overtones.

As she continues to trace memories and influences of her father, she concludes that by not being there for her, he gave her a lack of confidence in men, the men she wants and loves: “Father who makes me know all men will leave me/ if I love them.” Presumably by the sensitizing effect of his desertion, however, he also made her a “maverick,/ a writer,/ a namer”—in short, a poet.

With that realization, Wakoski reels off a catalog of longings and absences as if in an attempt to purge herself of bad feeling. Having worked through these memories, she turns to a substitute father, symbolized by George Washington, and says, “ ‘George, you have become my father.’ ” In a cry full of disbelief, longing, and joy, she asks “Father,/ Father,/ Father,/ have you really come home?”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

Wakoski is frequently referred to as a confessional poet. Taboo material can be used for powerful effect, and Wakoski is one of the outstanding practitioners of the confessional mode. By violating the reader’s sense of decorum and boundaries, she taps into deep feelings both in herself and in her reader.

The confessional aspects of her poem intensify the feeling that the poem is important because the writer feels strongly enough about the material to break taboos. Using and shaping personal material, she develops a personal mythology that is both a re-creation of the self in a new identity and a coherent interpretation of the chaotic old self. Like other mythologies, the personal mythology is a story of origins peopled by heroes and villains and dealing with elemental emotions.

The mythic world of Wakoski’s imagination is inhabited by many created or adapted characters, such as George Washington in this poem; in fact, Washington appears in a whole series of her poems. Sometimes her characters seem to be masks for real people in her life, while at other times they seem to be simply types filling some symbolic role. That is, George Washington may be a name she uses to depict a real person who has filled the need for a father figure in her life, or he may be a symbol used to express and resolve conflicts in her own psyche. In either case, this personal mythology becomes a means of interpreting and re-creating the self.

Wakoski’s poems are typically long, in the tradition of Whitman and many examples of American free verse. The loose, expansive structure allows her to develop complex themes and variations that remind readers of improvisational music. Within her long poems, such as “The Father of My Country,” she finds room for extensive catalogs or lists that give her poetry an incantatory quality. The use of the catalog or list in poetry is one way that modern poets have given form and music to free verse, and Wakoski makes particularly dramatic use of the device. In this poem, there are several such lists, including the list of objects found in a trunk, the list of things her father has left her, and the list of the ways in which she felt abandoned.

Finally, Wakoski uses surrealistic images in her poetry to evoke strong feeling and to write about emotions that are hard to describe in any other way. Sometimes these images are dreamlike in mood, and other times she actually places them in dreams. One such image in the poem is the diamond shaped like a dog that leaves her and runs away with her father. Although it is possible to make logical associations, such as seeing the diamond as a symbol of marriage, the image really works in a more emotional way, like something in a dream that gives one peculiarly intense emotions whether it makes sense or not. Frustration, desertion, possession, value, and anger are all evoked by this image. Surrealistic images can work as symbols and also give a strange, interesting mood to the writing.

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Themes