I Am Wearing Your Shirt

On Tuesday night, 17 of us gathered at Bryan Uecker’s Book Nook and Java Shop in Montague, Michigan. Go there. You will enter the world as it should be: fine food, fine drinks, music, fascinating art objects, books of course, and overstuffed chairs, calming lighting, and such welcoming warmth.

This is a gift from Bryan to all those who hope to find a place where the soul finds respite.

We gathered for a workshop in which I try to offer a variety of approaches to writing that explores one’s personal history, the history that matters, the history that one is seldom encouraged to discover. There is memory, the wellspring of much of our lives. As Joy Harjo has so quietly said, “Memory alive. That’s what we are.” And there is memory that becomes a record of our history, meaning those experiences and those people who have had an impact on who we are.

During our evening a troubling discussion arose about how, all but daily, 45 by his coarse and caustic language distracts these writers from what deeply matters to them. Two and a half hours later, we left feeling re-connected to our own worlds, regretting that we needed a workshop to have this happen, and with hope that we can attend to political events that matter and somehow keep 45 from tearing us away from what creates the personal meaning in our days.

I Am Wearing Your Shirt
an elegy for my father

When your words left
your hands, the only place
silence holds us to the earth
opened.  Somewhere a child
opened a door.  Somewhere
a mother looked out a window.

You lived in your hands—alive
in bread dough, along the handles
of tools, holding the endless
usefulness of rags.  “In all
things, a firm grip,” you told me,
and at the end, you wanted only
your hands.

The snow that comes in the mornings
brings each of your words.  The water
forms around your and, your either, not
and yes.  They land, they just land.
Sometimes they fall all day, and into
the next.  Sometimes they melt before noon.

You never waited.  In the Spring,
you forced the shoots, even
the blooms.  The trays waited
on the coffee table, the refrigerator,
the floor of the family room. We gave
one to anyone who stopped. They
were gone by May.

Yesterday, I found a photograph.  I’m
sitting on your shoulders.  Or is it you
sitting on your father’s shoulders?  Or
is it your grandfather sitting
on his beer wagon, holding
his team of tired horses?

At the funeral, you walked through the house
collecting your garden tools, cookbooks, and
sweatshirts while each visitor laid the bud
of a rose on your chest.  They formed a heart
within the heart of your arms and folded hands.
I imagine them opening in your ashes.

Every morning for fifty-one years, you
woke and began by whispering, “This
is the best part of the day,” and laid
your arm across her back.

I am wearing your shirt.  Now,
when I walk, I wear your hat.  In
the garden, I wear your gloves.

Here the land is flat.  You
lived in the clay hills,
always at an angle.

Growing up on Goat Shit Hill,
looking out over the sullen
open hearths, the tired smoke
of the mills, the smudged strip
of heartless coal, you took shot
after shot at the hoop your father
rammed into the ridge behind
your house, knowing any miss
could send you down a mile
after the disrespected ball.

The house is cold now, cold
as Spring turning itself
into bloom.  We wait at the window.

You always stepped aside
to let every question have its way.

Your God wanted no attention at all.

Yesterday, when I dug into our garden’s
matted earth, I felt your hand slide
into mine as if it were putting on
a glove.  We went together
into the awkward ground, turned the soil,
let it slip between our fingers.

Where have you walked
in a year?  The center
of snow. . .  The center of
each amen. . . of every
word we’ve tried to keep.
Now, on this still April afternoon,
one more year to the day you
came to stay within us, the trees’
negative space waits for leaves.

And wearing your shirt, I look out into
the wood, where the end of each branch
touches the air’s one silence.

How you loved this dust, this
light on the side of the house.

–Jack Ridl

First published in the New Poems from the Third Coast, Contemporary Michigan Poetry (Wayne State University Press)
Subsequently published in Broken Symmetry (Wayne State University Press)

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Visit Roan & Black and Cabbages & Kings and Reader’s World to find Jack’s books in West Michigan.

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Click here for Jack’s entire collection, In Time — poems for the current administration.

Click here to watch Jack’s TedX talk.

And, of course, click here to visit ridl.com, check out what Jack’s been up to, maybe say hi!


14 thoughts on “I Am Wearing Your Shirt

  1. Having an understanding of who your father was, and what your relationship to him meant, I was really touched by the eloquence, and sense of memories you have of your father, and of your undying love and affection.

    I am going to have to try to make it to the Book Nook & Java Shop with Dawn & Lillian. Dawn and I have a strong personal connection to Montague, that I would like to share with you today when we meet for lunch.

    I will see you as planned, at 11:30 at our usual gathering spot.

    See you then and thank you for this touching poem.


    • Nick, reading this after our moving conversation is a joy because I
      will always have your kind words here to remind me of the meaningful
      exchange we had, a beautiful time and now for always.
      My abundant thanks

    • From your great good soulful heart this means all the more, Christine.
      I know you are walking in the meaning of your days.

  2. Hi Jack, “MeToo, remember the old song, “Memories are made of this…” and “Thanks for the memories”? Blessings, bill h

  3. “I am Wearing Your Shirt” touches every cell in my heart. I have a few articles of my parents’ clothing in my closet, which I don’t wear but will save forever. I smile every day when I shuffle through my closet in search of something of my own to wear. I smile at my father’s favorite ragged work shirt and my mother’s wool dress…it must have been itchy. I feel the message they send every time I see their belongings, “We’re still here,” they say. However, the most amazing message from my father was received about 10 years after my father died. I was cleaning up under a double line of evergreens and birches that grows along the north edge of the yard, that once belonged to my parents, that became mine after they were gone. As I raked and clipped scraggly bushes, I began to discover little strips of tin under the mature line of trees mixed into the many years of natural mulch, each one describing a tree, “EVERGREEN, NO. I, 1978,” “EVERGREEN NO. 38, 1984,” etc. The messages were etched into the tin in his inimitable printing style. I’ve collected about 40 of them. I quickly realized he had planted all those trees over the years as seedlings, squeezing, by hand, the labeled tin strips around their tiny trunks, and as they grew, the strips unleashed their hold to fall to the ground. I have found “EVERGREEN, NO. 62, 1992,” so I know there are many more “fatherly messages” to be found. I guess I have found the easy ones, so far. I still find a strip every now and then, but I am far from finding them all. I hope he wishes for me a long life, which I will need in order to find them all. Thank you for this great poem.

    • I am all but unable to type, having nothing to see, but feeling
      wonder and grace and joy and meaning and tearful astonishment.
      You do know, don’t you, that I loved them too. I so often tell
      sweet stories of “Dr. Cook.” His sweet hesitancy to impose on
      us in class said so much about him, and so of course that same
      hesitancy to impose would bury what he wanted to say about each
      of those seedlings. Oh what a gift. And this story should
      be heard by every single good soul. Soil and soul. I like that.
      Thank you for bringing such a gift to me. Oh my, thank thee.

  4. Jack,
    Your words gave a clear picture of Buzz. I don’t know how much he understood your poetry but I suspect that he respected your dedication and career.

    • Hey, where are you guys. You’re supposed to be still here.
      You knew him this way, too, Tom, a way that not many realized.
      It was fascinating that while composing the poem, nothing about
      coaching showed up. And yet you know that this was the soul
      of the man who took that same way of being to his coaching.
      Thank you and return soon. And where did you hang the painting?

  5. Thank you, Jack, for this lovely, gentle elegy—personal to you and universal to me. These are my memories, too, the same feelings, though not the same images.

    • Thank you, Diane. Thank you immensely. I so appreciate your word “gentle.”
      And thank you for saying that about personal/universal. I am always trying
      to explore the personal that IS ALSO the universal. Only the details differ.
      We connected, and that’s the hope of art and of this guy.

  6. Thank you for the beautiful poem, Jack. My daughter, Alison, asked for my Mom’s flower trowel some years ago. Alison and her family live in Burlington, Vermont now. My Mom would like it there. I have my Dad’s tool box – some of these tools were my Grandpa’s. I don’t have a screw gun. I like to use these tools. Like most, I have varied reactions to your poems. Sometimes it is like turning the sprinkling can on myself on a hot day.

    • How beautiful, Jim, to connect this way. I often think of certain poems as,
      though personal, personal in a deeply human way. The reader discovers, “Hey,
      I do that, too, only with . . .” We are less alone. How I wish the political
      world were human centered rather than issue centered.

      I love your saying you have varied reactions to the poem and then say,
      “Sometimes . . .” Leaves me smiling as I imagine “Then at other times
      I don’t go for this at all.”

      Vermont! Ahhhh, what a lovely place to have Alison. And Burlington.
      A dear friend’s son works at the outdoor store there, lives in
      the woods just outside, loves it there. Those tools you have
      are saying so so soooo many things.


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