Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
Thus begins one of my favorite poems, “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. If there is verse that more honestly, more painfully expresses gratitude for love, I don’t know it. Writing these lines, Hayden makes nothing up. He goes simply and directly to his own experience. But this isn’t a “confessional poem” in any meaningful sense, despite its reporting from life. He doesn’t sensationalize or complain. He simply tells.
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze.
The poem is autobiographical but it’s not really about him. It’s about his father, one of those stern working class men uncomfortable to be around who had a thousand expectations, pointed out every shortcoming, and never said, “I love you,” not even once. The flames that heat the house, stoked before the speaker wakes, reflect the daily duty of the unsung founder going on even when he’s not at work, blissfully absent.
No one ever thanked him.
These are the kind of hands that run furnaces in the basements of buildings, or in the cavernous windowless spaces of factories and mills, but also invisibly provide the ambient passion that holds the family together. The hearth is the heart of the house and its consumptive burning that demands constant fuel is the patriarchal lineage of perseverance and commitment.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
In a family like this, a mother’s love— implicit here, though never mentioned—is abundant and easily acknowledged despite the meager circumstances. But a father’s love is more taciturn and tenuous, subtle, perhaps even denied as somehow unmanly by both father and son.
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Hayden didn’t have it easy, growing up poor in Detroit. He resented his father’s failure to give them more or better, and he lived afraid of the dissatisfaction and repressed rage that such inadequacy left just beneath the surface of the day to day. In every room, at every meal, in every forced proximity lay the chance that silence would blaze into conflagration.
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
Yet at the end of the day, Hayden had a house, food on the table, a kind mother and an honorable father, who laid down his life year after year to give his son life. It was that man, not some other, who stuck around to raise him up into a decent human being. To paraphrase James Wright, this wasn’t a good home, it was a home, and that was enough.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
It was Hayden the man not the child, who too late as is often the case, understood he owed his imperfect father everything, and with these humble words repaid him.