from AGNI, Number 72
Over the years my father and I had one argument that was particularly circular. The roundabout went like this: he would start by saying that writing was a luxury I was lucky to be able to afford. I would counter that writing wasn't a luxury, writing was a necessity: the luxury was not having to support myself by teaching or copy editing, housecleaning or table waiting, as most of my friends and peers did. Like virtually every poet of my generation I had taken as a touchstone the question Rilke posed to the young poet in their correspondence: "Ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night must I write? ... And if this should be affirmative ... then build your life according to this necessity.... " A luxury was something I knew I could do without, the opposite of writing. My father would shake his head at my intransigency and drop the subject, only to take it up at our next seasonal scotch. Year after year, round after round, luxury versus necessity.
Beyond understanding that writing was essential to me, I was also ever aware that what I called my work didn't support me financially. Though my father hadn't intended that I use his gift to support my writing, that is what I did, gratefully but ambivalently: the funds he transferred to me a source of relief, my dependence a source of embarrassment. By temperament I was independent, but I valued writing poetry more than I valued earning my own way. Why reinvent the wheel? In my family, having no interest in earning money was itself a declaration of independence.
If most young poets consider disrespect for money their entitlement, the world, in one way or another, goes out of its way to teach us that it's not. In my childhood, success was our hearth god, a jealous deity to whom my father made daily offerings of ambition, calculated risk, time, energy, focus, and enthusiasm, and if money wasn't an exact synonym for success, it was, at the very least, its measure—the tangible reward of an abstract goal. Lack of regard for money was tantamount to lack of personal hygiene, and as I often heard, "cleanliness is next to godliness." The hours that I have spent contemplating, ruing, coming to terms with the sacrifices my parents wittingly and unwittingly made at the altar of success, the hours trying to deconstruct my own barbed relation both to it and to the money it wrought—these too are offerings.
In hindsight, since my father's death, it is easy for me to see that when he insisted that writing was a luxury I was lucky to be able to afford, he was simply asking me to display more gratitude for what he had given me. Whereas I felt self-conscious about my flush circumstances (what poet doesn't dream of not working a day job?) my father saw luxury as something to cherish, something that he had earned, that he could bestow. Not just the luxury of a vacation home but also the luxury of not cooking or cleaning (not having my mother cook or clean), the luxury of not having to scrimp and worry, as his immigrant father had. The luxury of having enough to give generously, to his family and his community. Perhaps my father said luxury and meant freedom, wanting me to be more grateful for my freedoms. If he had said freedom, perhaps we could have come to terms.
* * *
A retailer of women's clothing when he started out, my father understood the marketplace as the final, the only, arbiter of success—an understanding as foreign to me at ten years old as it is now. How can you sell something just for the sake of selling it, if you don't believe in it, I would ask him earnestly, with great faith in my moral compass. My father never took offense; he enjoyed debate, and staunchly, fervently, he would try to convince me of the value of giving people—customers—what they wanted, not what you cared about.
In fact, though, in an unself-conscious and instinctive way, my father did care about women's clothing, and was his whole life an astute stylist for the women in his family. After going to college on the GI bill, he had started out as a department store buyer, and while still working his day job opened his first store. He had an eye for fabric and the cut of cloth, a knack for picking out a season's line, for anticipating what would appeal to the customer. How could he later not take my insistence on writing only what mattered to me, in a form widely deemed—even by intellectuals—irrelevant to the public sphere, as a willful and personal snub?
But beyond any ideas about it, my father simply loved his work obsessively. He was constitutionally fitted for it: eager, sharp-witted, hard-working, competitive and visionary, he trusted his gut and jumped at opportunity. If he didn't view life as a battle (and he probably did), he certainly saw every day as providing a new opening for advancement, each new store as a strategic outpost, his employees a phalanx of troops. Every week, even as disc problems made sitting in a car increasingly painful, he drove up and down the San Francisco peninsula and across the bay to check on the merchandising, displays, and salespeople of his growing number of far-flung stores. In the early evening, before we had dinner, he would pour himself a scotch and, at his desk in the den, call each store's manager to get sales figures and discuss inventory. He was always in the thick of it, a stalwart general an employee could trust to cover her back as long as she did her part. Whether reading in my room or helping in the kitchen, I could hear him whoop when sales exceeded expectations, and when they disappointed, could hear him exhorting his lieutenants on, strategizing and planning resupplies.
Implicitly, explicitly, the focus of the household was understood to be the support of the father who supported us. That his success was our own was a given my mother's every gesture underscored, and so he was allowed the blinders he asserted—sometimes insistently, sometimes apologetically—that he needed to succeed, whether this meant shooing my sister and me away after we welcomed him home with boisterous hugs, or dominating the dinner table with tales of the day's skirmishes. As a child I would picture my father as a racehorse, eyes shielded by heavy leather cups to keep him from being spooked. If at times he seemed like a third, particularly willful child, my mother's favorite, indulged and pampered, taking all her attention, it was hard to begrudge him. After all, beyond our dependence on him, it was his attention—warm, direct, encompassing—that we all craved and, when we had it, relished.
From as far back as I can remember, I would accompany him as he visited stores to talk to managers and check conditions on the floor. A meticulous person, he wanted his stores to be inviting, well-stocked, and well-organized; he would often shift merchandise around to make things flow well. By the time I was in elementary school I would help out, at first unofficially, carting hangers or keeping tally during inventories, and later, during school vacations, working for minimum wage in his warehouse. It was in this way, at thirteen, that I earned the sewing machine I wanted but which my father saw as a personal affront, since those who sewed their own clothes wouldn't be buying his.
Just off the loading dock where trucks backed up to drop off manufacturers' "goods," I would open a carton with a box cutter, squeeze an armload of clothes between two hands, lift it onto one of the long rolling iron rods, tear off the protective plastic sheath, replace each item's flimsy black shipping hanger with a store-worthy clear plastic one, and attach its ticket. I still can feel the satisfying zing the ticketing gun's thick needle made as it punched through a seam.
One summer, when I was in college and my father was between businesses, having sold one and not yet started up another, he got me a job on the floor of a friend's clothing store. Introverted, inept at engaging customers, philosophically opposed to the form of lying called flattery, I couldn't move a scarf to save my neck and, to my father's chagrin, lasted only a day, my presence so awkward the manager deemed it hurt everyone's sales.
Later, after I graduated, in a last-ditch attempt to divert me from what he saw as my profitless devotion to poetry, my father recruited me to work in the office of his new venture, a group of stores selling athletic shoes, which eventually became one of his few businesses to fail. The company was in a bind, he insisted, and he needed someone right away. So once again I took on the role of the beloved boss's daughter and assisted with inventory, this time checking stores' sales figures against shipping records to make sure they matched, pulling shoes out of the warehouse when stores requested restocks, and filling out reorder forms to send to the manufacturers.
After a few months, when I realized that the emergency was a fiction my father had concocted simply to get me to work for him, I quit. I'm sure it disappointed him that I rejected the opportunity to learn retailing under his tutelage; he didn't have sons and I was his best bet. Still, there were plenty of talented young people eager to work for him, vying to turn him into a surrogate father. Being realistic and practical, he made his peace with my decision and moved on. Back at my card-table writing desk, I was now free to take stock of and direct the flow of whatever goods I managed to pull up from the word hoard—my inventory, no matter how thread-worn, how meager, how lacking in buyers.
* * *
Years later, when my first book of poems was published, I noticed that I had two diametrically opposed but equally visceral reactions regarding my responsibilities toward it and toward the publishers, who, in reality, were poets like myself. It was, as all my books have been, a small-press book, but this was as small as could be: not just my first, but also the publishers' first. On the one hand, a purist, I wanted—and the clichéd image alone should have been enough to warn me—my small book of lyric poems to rise like cream to the top of the heap. On the other hand, I wanted to do something for it, to market it, though neither I nor the publishers had much of an idea how to go about this. Having little to horse-trade with fellow poets, we carted the book around to bookstores in whatever city we were in, and made cold calls for book signings, but I stopped short of anything that might be construed—God forbid—as self-promotion. That, in fact, was the problem: while the part of me that was my father's daughter itched to find an audience for my showcase, these were my wares, not inventory I had selected from vendors during market week and assembled under one roof. An artisan, I could separate myself from the poems while writing, in the interest of making them as good as I could, but once they were written, and now published, I acutely identified with them and felt abashed about promoting them, as if that would constitute an unseemly narcissism.
My father, who had a reputation as a tough but fair dealmaker, always able to negotiate favorable terms on a store lease, was happy that I had finally found a publisher and interested in "how my book was doing." It was humbling to explain to him the peculiar realities of small-press poetry publishing: the lack of an advance, the small press run, the door-to-door sales. It was as if I had gone back to the world of my father's first job as a Fuller Brush salesman, except his job was a stepping stone whereas I had chosen this circumscribed world, or as I construed it, it had chosen me. Why didn't I write popular fiction, a bestseller, he asked one night when I was having dinner with my parents in a small French restaurant on the Upper East Side, Diana Ross, still slinky, in a cozy twosome at a catercorner table. Why be content to sing in a garret club when you could sing in a stadium?
It was touching, really, that my father assumed I could accomplish whatever I put my mind to, but infuriating that he so little understood my ambitions and intentions. My mother, no fan of my choices herself, at least understood the terms and tried to explain: You're comparing apples and oranges—or, by implication, small potatoes and top bananas.
My father could do complicated equations, percentages, depreciations, compounded interests very quickly in his head, but his theory of negotiation was simple and not based on mathematics but on human nature. A successful negotiation, he liked to say, was one where all parties left feeling they had clinched the deal they wanted. He walked into a negotiation already knowing what was most important to him, and what he could afford to give up, then sussed out what mattered most to the other side, and what they would be willing to let go. There was never a reason to grind someone down, in business or in life. And so, when he realized, without quite comprehending how such a thing could be, that poetry itself, not just writing, and not the readership, was the non-negotiable item, my father again let it go and adjusted his sights.
* * *
As far as I can tell, the only thing that poetry and money have in common is that, more often than not, both manage to become—for those under their spell—the arbiter of value to the exclusion of other measures. This of course implies considerable power, widely attributed to money but not, any longer, to poetry. In the algorithm of Stevens's cryptic note that "money is a kind of poetry," poetry is the standard and money an expression or variation of it, as if money were an obscure—or debased—metrical form. That they both have their origins in the sacred seems for our time nothing more than a footnotable fact.
Shortly before my father died, I asked him if it had been his goal from the start to provide for generation upon generation. I thought so, but it had always struck me as curious, because I knew that he was aware of the potentially deleterious effects of wealth on those who inherit it. Growing up, I had often heard him quote as a truism "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations." My father certainly enjoyed his wealth and the status that both success and philanthropy conferred, but I wondered what, from the perspective of leaving it all behind, he saw as having caused this overarching desire to provide.
He didn't hesitate. He had wanted, he said, "everyone"—and by everyone I'm sure he meant all his born and unborn progeny—to have "peace of mind." I think that even he had long ago realized that this hope was delusional, that peace of mind was not something funds could secure. But the connection was too strong, too irrational. He was a child of the depression, after all. His own father had been a man of such anxiety that he would drive back down the street to make sure he hadn't run over a squirrel, and drive back across town to check that all the burners were off and the pilot light still lit. A survivor of the pogroms of the Pale, as a seventeen-year-old my grandfather had escaped by walking across Europe, starting out with his own father, who died of pneumonia in the snows of Romania. His savings—he became a peddler—helped my father open his first store, but he was an atheist and a socialist, known in the community for his riveting recitation of Scholem Aleichem stories. It shouldn't have come to me as a surprise that my father, who though not particularly religious was bar mitzvahed behind his father's back, had from an early age conceived ambition as an escape from anxiety.
I'm sure it's no accident either that I became devoted to a passion with virtually no connection to monetary ambition, though ambition itself necessarily figures in every attempt to write a poem. Perhaps poetry was the only obsession that could override the one that dominated my upbringing: poetry has always existed, not without need of money but, for better or worse, despite and apart from it. For most of my life I've treated poetry and money as dangerous rivals who, barely on speaking terms, had to be kept apart lest a collision occur and their frosty truce of convenience implode my psyche. Their uneasy and dissociated coexistence has allowed me a certain detachment in both arenas, which I have valued in regard to money and struggled to overcome in relation to poetry. To choose poetry it is not enough—though it is necessary—to be viscerally engaged with language; one must also believe in the paramount importance of making value "from within oneself." One could never be a poet and believe that one's value, one's worth, could be caught in a net.
Although he probably only stopped keeping a running calculation of his assets in his head when he fell ill, my father, too, didn't want to be summed up and would never divulge his net worth to anyone, managing to keep the exact extent of it from both his accountant and estate lawyer. If in later life he got more satisfaction from helping others than from the material gains his assistance rested on, he was appreciated for sharing the unquantifiable wealth of his knowledge and his go-to spirit along with his dollars.
* * *
On the phone a few weeks before he died, my father again surprised me by saying that he felt closer to his father than ever before. His father had been dead for over forty years, but I didn't think he was talking about soon joining him in an afterlife, and so asked if he meant that death doesn't end our relationships. He said no, it definitely doesn't, that when he was young he was immature and his father was wise, and now he understood him better and they were closer. I was especially touched that the way he perceived the closeness involved a mutuality: not just that he felt closer to his father, but that they were closer to each other. It comforted me to think that this could be the case for us and I told him I planned on having a relationship with him for many years. I'm not sure if that was the point he was leading me up to, but it was as if we were making a pact to outwit death.
To succeed is commonly defined as to thrive, to prosper, or to flourish —to achieve one's goals—but the first definition is to come after, to replace, or to fill a vacancy. One never fills the vacancy left by a particular death, but in that sense of the definition, I—along with my sister—to some degree succeed my father simply by continuing to exist, just as he succeeded his and our children should succeed us. An obvious realization perhaps, but somehow, given the weight that success was accorded in my family, a startling one. That the terms of success as I define them for myself have little in common with those my father set for himself or would have chosen for me adds its own irony, but the cycles of life are inherently bittersweet, their creativity resting on Bloomsian acts of misreading and necessary betrayal.
Perhaps it happened to him only once or twice, but the first time my father was introduced to someone and received the response, "The poet's father?" he was taken aback and a little disconcerted to discover that the proprietary rights to our name were no longer solely his. Though many years ago he had been told by a family counselor that any longevity, let alone immortality, associated with our name would necessarily belong to the artists in the family, not the businessmen, the idea had seemed like a far-fetched joke. I know he was proud of whatever public recognition came to me, but in his mind the proper order had been reversed: I should be known as his daughter, rather than he as my father.
Of course the reflection that I've stared at anxiously for years is the inverse: that my own legacy—the accomplishment of those hard-to-market poems whose meaning is elusive and worth indeterminate—will be overshadowed by the existence of a public building, a stairwell, or a program carrying the family name.
* * *
When I was younger, if I looked to my father for answers to the questions that troubled me regarding how to live my life, all I saw was that in his world there was no place for poetry. It seemed that there were two sets of values laid out before me and that I had to choose. And I did. I chose poetry. Today, though, writing this and looking back, I find a more complicated interplay of values.
My father was a great believer in what he called "value received," the idea that what matters isn't just the price you pay for something but whether what you buy is worth what it costs—whether you were overcharged and whether it could have been had for less. An unspoken kink in this formulation is whether the going price is worth it to you, though it may seem exorbitant, or a pittance, to someone else. But money, as my father knew, isn't the only expenditure we make in life, and the examination of value received leads directly to questions regarding expenditure of effort: what is worth our time, what worth our attention.
Of course it makes no sense to evaluate the making of poetry using commercial criteria: poems—unless they are windfalls—are by nature labor intensive and always slow-moving stock. If I approached my work as a vendor would, the bottom line would be reached through an equation that takes into account time spent, cost incurred, demand for units manufactured. But a poem isn't a commodity to be owned, traded, or sold. A poem can be freely passed around. Unlike a painting, its value isn't reliant on its uniqueness as an object: one copy is as good as another, and perhaps the best copy is the one you carry in your head. The demand a poem fulfills is an internal one.
But to make assessments like these, to take stock, to analyze critically and valuate, is not just for purposes of taxation or the marketplace. While to take stock is to take inventory, as I did as a child, here, as elsewhere, financial terms resonate metaphorically, and to take stock is also what I do every time I sit down to write.
When I was younger, I understood my father's life to be about acquisition, but now I think commerce was merely the vehicle, a means, not an end, for his intellect and creativity, his restless questing nature, his desire to make his mark. Keenly interested in American history and contemporary politics, my father relished arenas vastly different—more public, more civic—from the realms I inhabit, but his most important legacy to me is less his actual and substantial accomplishments than the example of passionate and moral engagement they were rooted in. The irony I feel most acutely is not that, as my father foretold, our relationship continues to develop, but that he has—uncharacteristically—left me free to set the terms of our ever-renewed debates.
About the Author
Carol Moldaw's most recent book is So Late, So Soon: New and Selected Poems (Etruscan Press, 2010). She is the author of four other books of poetry, including The Lightning Field (2003), which won the 2002 FIELD Poetry Prize, and a novel, The Widening (2008). A recipient of an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize, Moldaw lives outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. In spring 2011, she will be the Louis D. Rubin Jr. Writer-in-Residence at Hollins University.
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