My Father Moved through Dooms of Love

Scott Bates, 1923-2013

Scott Bates, 1923-2013

Poetry proved its worth at my father’s memorial service Saturday, creating a memorable experience for a standing-room-only gathering. Yesterday I shared my own contribution. Today I discuss the other readings.

My brother Jonathan read e. e. cummings’ passionate love poem to his own father. Jonathan said that he and my father once discussed what poetry might be read at his funeral, and my father shied away from the idea of Jonathan reading “my father moved through dooms of love.” That’s because the poem is a heartfelt expression of admiration and my father was nervous about displays of naked emotion. (In his poetry, he dances around strong emotion through his use of wit.) Jonathan was not to be deterred, however. He is the most romantic the four Bates boys and he read it anyway.

There are so many lines that fit my father, who was doomed to love us, with all the anxiety and heartbreak that accompany love. Such as “singing each morning out of each night.” And “joy was his song and joy so pure
 a heart of star by him could steer.” And “scorning the pomp of must and shall.” And “his sorrow was as true as bread.” Jonathan acknowledged that cummings is at times hyperbolic, as in “no cripple wouldn’t creep one mile
 uphill to only see him smile.” But that being said, my father had an amazing smile.

I particularly find applicable the final five stanzas, where we see a dark world filled with images of “flesh and blood [as] mud and mire,” a place where  freedom is “a drug that’s bought and sold.” In the face of this reality, our father was one who would “sing[ ] each new leaf out of each tree (and every child was sure that spring /danced when she heard my father sing”). The poem beautifully sums up what we were thinking of him: “because my father lived his soul/love is the whole and more than all.” Here’s the poem:

My father moved through dooms of love

through sames of am through haves of give,

singing each morning out of each night

my father moved through depths of height

this motionless forgetful where

turned at his glance to shining here;

that if (so timid air is firm)

under his eyes would stir and squirm

newly as from unburied which

floats the first who, his april touch

drove sleeping selves to swarm their fates

woke dreamers to their ghostly roots

and should some why completely weep

my father’s fingers brought her sleep:

vainly no smallest voice might cry

for he could feel the mountains grow.

lifting the valleys of the sea

my father moved through grief of joy;

praising a forehead called the moon

singing desire into begin

joy was his song and joy so pure

a heart of star by him could steer

and pure so now and now so yes

the wrists of twilight would rejoice

keen as midsummer’s keen beyond

conceiving mind of sun will stand,

so strictly (over utmost him

so huge (stood my father’s dream

his flesh was flesh his blood was blood:

no hungry man but wished him food;

no cripple wouldn’t creep one mile

uphill to only see him smile.

Scorning the pomp of must and shall

my father moved through dooms of feel;

his anger was as right as rain

his pity was as green as grain

septembering arms of year extend

less humbly wealth to foe and friend

than he to foolish and to wise

offered immeasurable is

proudly and (by octobering flame

beckoned) as earth will downward climb,

so naked for immortal work

his shoulders marched against the dark

his sorrow was as true as bread:

no liar looked him in the head;

if every friend became his foe

he’d laugh and build a world with snow.

My father moved through theys of we,

singing each new leaf out of each tree

(and every child was sure that spring

danced when she heard my father sing)

then let men kill which cannot share,

let blood and flesh be mud and mire,

scheming imagine, passion willed,

freedom a drug that’s bought and sold

giving to steal and cruel kind,

a heart to fear, to doubt a mind,

to differ a disease of same,

conform the pinnacle of am

though dull were all we taste as bright,

bitter all utterly things sweet,

maggoty minus and dumb death

all we inherit, all bequeath

and nothing quite so least as truth
i say though hate were why men breathe-

because my father lived his soul

love is the whole and more than all

My son Darien talked about how he saw his grandfather as a sorcerer. We saw my parents once a year when we would drive down for the elaborate Victorian Christmas that my father would stage each year. Therefore Prospero in Shakespeare’s Tempest, who creates a magical island, came to mind. Darien broke down in tears as he read about Prospero breaking his staff and drowning his book:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

My other son, Tobias, read a poem that grew out of a conversation he had with my father about his World War II experiences. Toby noted that his name had to be changed to “Mike” for an easier rhyme.

I’ve written about the poem here. The poem is in part about the impossibility of communicating the experience of war to someone who wasn’t there. The father uses the phrase “the greatest generation” sarcastically. He didn’t himself see his generation that way:

“The Greatest Generation”

“What was the Second World War like?”
I am asked by my youngest grandson, Mike,
Who has just remembered that he has
To write a paper for his English class

And hopes his grandfather will tell him a story
Like Private Ryan, full of guts and glory.
“That’s easy,” I answer—I am the One
Who Was There, the Expert, the Veteran–

(Who has read in the paper, by the way,
That thousands of vets die every day),
“It was boring, mostly,” I say, “and very
I think.  “It was pretty scary.
And long.  And the longer it got, the more idiotic
It seemed.”  I stop.  “It was patriotic.”

How to tell the kid the exciting news
That we survived on sex and booze.
And hated the Army and hated the War
And hoped They knew what we were fighting for . . . .
And I remember my buddy, Mac,
Who got shot up in a tank attack,
And Sturiano, my closest friend . . .

It is still going on.  How will it end?

“It was people surrounded by dying men.”

“But what was it like?” asks Mike again.

My niece, the first girl in three Bates generations (although I now have a granddaughter and I have another on her way), read a poem that imagines whales “skipping down the street like little girls”:


Whales have a tendency to move heavily
On land it’s all that blubber
Keeps Whales from skipping down the street like little girls
Or balls of rubber

For if by chance a Whale you should encounter
Down Madison Avenue
On the first day of Spring

You would perhaps be reminded of The New York Public Library
Trundling through the park
On a midsummer’s eve surrounded by children
Or of Noah’s Ark

Or of the Pennsylvania Station
But if you should become a Gull
Drifting quietly over the Antarctic Ocean
Illimitable and cool

You would see Whales below like Swallows dance
Like Swallows on a pond
They would skip off lightly across the green water
And soar without a sound

One of my father’s French colleagues, George Poe, read two poems by my father. In George’s opinion (and my own), the first is the greatest poem my father ever wrote, an Audenesque lyric that contrasts selfish and selfless love. It concludes in the perfect circle of an innocent children’s round. George connected the poem to my father’s deep sense of service, whether to his students, to the University of the South, or to the cause of social justice:

Glen Song

If all you love is who you love
And why and where and when
Then all you love is you you love
Like all the other men

But if the spring and fall you love
And summer in the glen
Then all you love is all you love
And all you love again.

George also read “The Hickory Trees and the Squirrels,” which captures my father’s life-long penchant for mussing up orthodoxy in an irreverent and light-hearted squirrel-like way:

The Hickory Trees and the Squirrels

The Hickory Trees said
Every year
You autumn Squirrels
Get in our hair

Without they said
A seed of sense
You wreck our summer

What do you think
We are they said
A big trapeze

Nuts said the Squirrels
To the Hickory Trees

A close friend of my parents also read an unpublished poem that I will add to this post when I get access to it.

Finally, my daughter-in-law Betsy concluded the service was a fabulous rendition of the Jacques Prévert poem that I shared on Saturday. Her light touch, which perfectly captured the quaver of two tipsy but contented snails, was the perfect conclusion.

Everyone there felt that Scott Bates had been honored as he should be. We all agreed that he would have loved being there.

Then again, maybe he was.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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