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Poems from
You Don't Miss Your Water


Poet's Choice

By Robert Hass
June 21, 1998

Cornelius Eady is a New York City poet. Last year he published a small book about his father's death. It's called You Don't Miss Your Water. The title comes from a song lyric: "But when you left me, /O how I cried./ You don't miss your water/ till the well runs dry." It's about a son's relation to a difficult father at the time of his dying. Only about 20 pieces, a mix of poems and short prose, written in the plainest language, the book also became the basis for an off-Broadway theater piece. Here's a taste:

A Little Bit of Soap

One of the things my father never liked about me was my dark skin. You used to be so pretty was the way he'd put it, and it was true, there is proof, a baby picture of a curly-haired, just a hair's breadth away from fair skinned child, my small fingers balled up into a fist.

And then, as if some God shrugged and suddenly turned away its gaze, something caved in, and I was dark, dark, and all that it implied.

So what happened? My father always seemed to want me to explain, what did this desertion mean? This skin that seemed born to give up, this hair that crinkled to knots, this fairy tale-like transformation?

You used to look real good, my father, a man of slightly lighter hue, would say to me, his son, his changeling. Maybe you ought to wash more.

One Kind Favor

My father is close to death, and in his final hours, he begins his journey by asking anyone within earshot of his bed for a few things.

He asks to be allowed to go back home to Florida.

He asks to be able to cast off his dreary hospital gown, to be reunited to the shape of his own clothes.

He wants someone to fetch him his shoes, now useless for weeks, the impossible act of slipping them on, the slight miracle of bending and tying.

In his wishes, my mother arrives and sits at his bedside, or he changes it, and he walks back into his house, into the living room, his old chair.

He is so close to dreaming now, and his body lifts with the desire to fix things.


In Italy, a scholar is giving an after-dinner talk on her study of Dante and of the many questions left unanswered about the afterlife.

For example, where does the shade of the body, the one true and indestructible rainbow vessel, go to wait for the end of time if the head goes one way at the moment of death, and the limbs another?

And I thought of my father, fired to dust in a plain urn, and all the answers I'd learned in church, how all the lost must rise, commuters home at last, from wherever fate ditched them, with their dishonored ropes and blown equipment, up from the sea, the peat, the misjudged step, the angry fuselage, the air bright from ashes, as will and memory knit.

Will my father's glorified body be the one I'd grown up with, a stock man, perhaps dressed in his one good suit?

Will he be the young boy I'll never know, Sonny Eady, who wanders off for months at a time, always returning with no accounting of his movements?

Will he be the groom my mother saw, or the shape of the man she claims visited her weeks after his funeral, appearing just to help my mother close this file on their lives, just to tell her fare-thee-well, woman, I'll never see you no more?

How can this be done? is one question the scholar is here to work on, and as she places our hands into Dante's, and night gathers in the mountains, I think that every hymn is a flare of longing, that the key to any haven is language.

You Don't Miss Your Water is published by Henry Holt.

Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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