Collected Poems of John Holmes
Holmes, John A., Jr.
The Somerset Dam for supper
The Somerset Dam for supper
She tells us an interminable story, from television,
Through the fried potatoes, hamburg, and coleslaw. She is five.
She uses her mother's voice, voices and names from school life,
To be the only one talking. Her mother watches me for signs of impatience.
I am her father, I conceal my impatience, and for his own good
Silence her brother, restless at monologue not his own. He is nine.
It ends with only bread left, coffee coming for the grownups.
I begin the true story of the long trip to Somerset Dam in 1912
With my father, by train from North Cambridge to Hoosac Tunnel,
By narrow-gauge to Mountain Mills where log booms filled a sawmill lake,
By gas car to the bunkhouse end of the line. A berry-eating bear
Plunged into the bushes along the tracks. Excitement. A real bear?
A real bear. What color? Brown, I say, but didn't really see.
I am the only one talking, and tell them now about the flatbed wagon
To the engineers' house at the base of the big earth dam.
He and she and their mother never heard this story. I have more.
But he runs to my desk, brings back a photograph of the dam;
Maybe his grandfather's boy, I think, as he turns my table story
Into an explanation of the dam's construction, the borrow pits,
The dump cars on the bare log trestles. I begin again,
Remembering when my father took me, and my sister and brother,
To see the steam shovels at the east borrow pit. A shouted
Warning, we ducked behind a small rock and a forked birch,
And Boom, and Roar, went the dynamite,
Rock raining all around us, but no one hit.
He likes this part. He is nine.
My father was chief engineer-and important, I knew, when the foreman,
Helmeted and scared, came running to see if he had killed any of us.
But we shouldn't have been there, and my father couldn't be angry.
Later my mother said, "What were you thinking of, taking the children there?"
He had no excuse for that, either. This part is for my wife.
I have more story, but no more dynamite. Time for ice cream.
Our son's unusual silence has earned him his turn now.
He begins a riddle, anything to be talking: "There were seven pine trees-"
His sister says, "Acorns!," and he storms out of the room; the giveaway
Ruins it. We all call at once to come back, shut up, sit down, stop crying.
The ice cream is brought. He comes back, gets a grip on himself, starts again.
I try to multiply seven pine trees times seven branches times seven
Twigs on each, times seven acorns on each twig, and can't.
None, is the answer. Now he has the center of attention. Climax.
Time to clear the supper table. The first storyteller
Feels it has been too long since her performance, wants to repeat,
But we carry away dishes, and in the kitchen my wife
Washes the glass of the framed photograph of Somerset Dam, 1912,
My father's square lettering, in Higgins Black Ink for draughtsmen),
And I hang it under a shelf there. None of them knows it,
But I intend to tell about the berry-eating bear and the dynamite
Again tomorrow, and go on from there.
It's a long story,
As I think of the fisherman who, pulling a trout from the river,
Snagged a low-flying young hawk for a double catch,
And the morning ritual of rain gauge and thermometer,
And the half-Indian cook who came with a knife to collect
What he'd won playing cards with our cook.
I'm the father, and at fifty-six I know more, that's all.