Hayden's Ferry Review

What My Father-in-Law Says

By David Ebenbach

By: David Ebenbach


My father-in-law says things will be different
when he’s emperor. He says, Only in America¸ 
even when it’s something every country does, 
like trains. He tells me he’s ready to help me
with the spelling. He knows the years things
happened. 1926, 1951. 2012. He stops, 
everything caught on a hook in his throat. 
But then he tells the automat story. He talks about
old girlfriends, so much that his wife once
started charging him, and then gave up. He says, 
I used to be nervous and jerky, but now I’m just
jerky. He says, My daughters were perfect. They
never gave me any trouble. Says it even now, 
after a year of ashes. My wife holds his hand. 
He says his other daughter’s name, 
sometimes. Says that things will be different. 
HFRWhat responsibility do you feel in presenting these flawed but very empathetic characters in the form of a poem?

DEI'm glad you asked about responsibility. I think we writers could talk more about the issue of responsibility in our work---responsibility to our readers, to our loved ones, to our characters. In all those cases I think we need to approach the people with empathy and a readiness for compassion, an expectation that people become more complicated the more we know them, and an awareness that our writing can affect people for better or for worse. In this particular case, I was writing about a man who has lost one of his daughters---something that should never, ever, ever happen to a parent---and so it was all the more important for me to come to the poem with empathy. And I think that empathy, at a practical level, actually made the poem possible---it turned out I was only able to approach the enormity of this grief by coming at it through the more idiosyncratic, befuddling, and mundane things that characterize this particular man. Those things are a doorway into his humanity.

David Ebenbach’s first full-length collection of poetry, We Were the People Who Moved, won the Patricia Bibby Award and will be published by Tebot Bach in 2015. He is also the author of the poetry chapbook Autogeography (Finishing Line Press), two collections of short stories—Between Camelots (University of Pittsburgh Press) and Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers’ Publishing House)—as well as The Artist’s Torah (Cascade Books), a non-fiction guide to the creative process. Ebenbach has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and he teaches creative writing at Georgetown University. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.