after Robert Hayden
What do I know of the mornings you slept in,
the pain in your stomach our cue to keep
our voices low, tiptoe? Awake, asleep,
invisible behind the bedroom door.
If I stayed home, I might see you emerge
mid-morning, holding a mug you’d top
up with coffee when you’d swallowed half.
Shuffling in robe and slippers, reading the paper,
nerving up to go next door, crunch numbers
in the office behind your mother’s house.
Puzzling, part-time work: a factory’s
payroll, tax returns in March, the month
we knew your stomach would flare.
Only the odd names of certain workers lit
your interest: Carmelita Schwartz, you’d say,
that’s funny! Words—you kept them close,
doled out Spanish to me, one word at a time.
When I was sick, you wrote an earache
limerick. There once was a doctor named Wimmer
whose mother-in-law was a swimmer…
And songs. When you died, you were working on
a musical about Odysseus, the man who loved
home but couldn’t seem to get there.
Robert Hayden (August 4, 1913 – February 25, 1980) served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1976 to 1978 (a position now known as US Poet Laureate), and was the first African American and the first person with a disability to hold the office. Okie refers here to his most widely anthologized poem, “Those Winter Sundays,” a love poem to the narrator’s father. The poem states, “No one ever thanked him.” It ends with the lines: “What did I know, what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
Susan Okie is a doctor, a poet, and a former Washington Post medical reporter. She received her MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College in January 2014. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, Passager, The Journal of the American Medical Association, Hospital Drive, Gargoyle and Cider Press Review. Her poem "Perseid" was chosen by Michael Collier as first-prize winner of the 2012 Bethesda Poetry Contest. Okie is a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at Georgetown University Medical School. She is married to Walter Weiss, a former medical school classmate, with whom she has two grown sons. Okie lives in Bethesda, MD.