Timothy Liu's "Thoreau"

Thoughts on shame.


My father and I have no place to go.
His wife will not let us in the house—
afraid of catching AIDS. She thinks
sleeping with men is more than a sin,
my father says, as we sit on the curb
in front of someone else’s house.
Sixty-four years have made my father
impotent. Silver roots, faded black
dye mottling his hair make him look
almost comical, as if his shame
belonged to me. Last night we read
Thoreau in a steak house down the road
and wept: If a man does not keep pace
with his companions, let him travel
to the music that he hears, however
measured or far away.
 The orchards
are gone, his village near Shanghai
bombed by the Japanese, the groves
I have known in Almaden—apricot,
walnut, peach and plum—hacked down.

from Burnt Offerings (Copper Canyon, 1995)

I have a huge and soft spot in my heart for Timothy Liu’s poetry. I find such an ache, a tenderness in it. You notice it in a poem like “Survivors,” where he writes:

Hold me

like a dream that will dissolve,

a childhood you never had.

At the core of Liu’s work is this acknowledgement of the necessity of love, and how love itself encompasses so much — how it is at once a want, a need, an extension of ourselves, a reaction to the world, a healing for our trauma, a cause of our trauma, all of this at once and more.

You see that in another poem of his, “All Trains Are Going Local,” where he writes:

Just want the pain to go away, you say,

surprised to find yourself

reaching for someone else's hand.

What a perfect encapsulation of what it means to love, which is also another way of hurting and healing, both at once. Sometimes from the same thing. Sometimes from something different. Always together. Always, together, alone.

It’s hard to think of a more tender, wrenching beginning to a poem than the beginning of today’s poem:

My father and I have no place to go.
His wife will not let us in the house—
afraid of catching AIDS. She thinks
sleeping with men is more than a sin,
my father says, as we sit on the curb
in front of someone else’s house.

Each line deepens the image of the previous line while simultaneously deepening the sorrow. The speaker and his father begin as wayward, lonely vagabonds, but then they are made all the more complex by their relationships and the ways those relationships are navigated, judged, and shamed.

What I notice about this poem is the way it moves. It begins in a place of absolute solitude: My father and I have no place to go. And then it moves to a juxtaposition of belonging and exile, the father and son outside someone else’s house. And then it moves to a place of deep intimacy, the father and son reading together in a steak house. I imagine the two of them in a booth, side by side, poring over the same book, reading lines back and forth to one another.

At the core of this poem is that relationship between a father and a son, each navigating different worlds that are remarkably similar. You see that when both — “us” — are refused entry into the house, and you see it even more deeply when Liu writes that the father’s “shame / belonged to me.” You see it in the we the poem begins to embody instead of the I: “Last night we read…and wept.” And you see it, finally, in the comparison between the homes of both the father and the son. The orchards that are gone. And the groves that have been hacked down.

Liu writes about this relationship in another poem, “The Remains,” which details the son’s act of returning home after many years to help his father with the reinterment of so many he has loved. It ends with this unbelievable image:

Your hands are so soft! I say

to my father. So are yours, he says. Remember

when it was we last held hands? I must have been

a kid, I say, maybe eight, or ten? You were six,

my father says. And I'm still your son, I say,

leaning into his shoulder, our hands the same size.

At a certain point, our relationships leave the simple definitions of the world, the ones that allow us to define things by size or shape or age. They refuse the limitations of such things, and instead fall into complexity in the midst of such things. In other words, some of the definitions of life no longer seem to matter. They don’t matter in this excerpt. Hand size. Age. Such things fall away. Because I’m still your son. Just as, in today’s poem, the father’s age, and the impotence, and so much else fade into the background, leaving the two of them are together, weeping, sharing in the lonely companionship of the world.

In Heaven’s Coast, the beautiful memoir by Mark Doty about AIDS, loss, grief, beauty, and more, Doty writes:

All my life I've lived with a future which constantly diminishes but never vanishes.

I recognize that sentiment in the Thoreau passage that is quoted in today’s poem:

If a man does not keep pace
with his companions, let him travel
to the music that he hears, however
measured or far away.

And I recognize that feeling. Not to keep pace with your companions. To feel a longing to share in the music that others hear even if the music one hears does not feel the same. To feel alone. To feel ashamed. And ashamed for what? Not wanting what others want? Not feeling emboldened by society? Satisfied? Successful? Wanted? Alive by the right standards?

I’ve come to think lately that the worst phrase someone can say to someone else is: you should be ashamed of yourself. I have heard that phrase enough in my life. I am sure that others have heard it more. At its core is something terrible: this idea that you should be ashamed of the only thing you possibly have ownership over. Your own self. Ashamed. Try to imagine a worse feeling than shame. It’s impossible.

That line — as if his shame / belonged to me — is hard to forget. What lives on between us? I think sometimes we think it is love, or triumph. Pride, even. We share in what is easier to hold, maybe. But shame — how often do we share in this? How often do we hold each other’s shame? Or carry it for one another? Shame is an impossible feeling to deal with, and we so often deal with it alone. We are told to be ashamed, and then we are ashamed, and we can’t say it or change it. And the way that shame manifests itself is different in each of us. But it does manifest itself, doesn’t it? As a kid, my shame felt so intimate and personal that I assumed no one would understand, and so I pretended myself alone, even when I was among others.

Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to today’s poem, because it models an experience of shame that is rooted in tenderness. The father and son, each ashamed, perhaps, for different reasons, are brought together as a result, and moved to tears. It’s not a hopeful poem, no. There’s that Doty thought again, that future that diminishes but never vanishes.

I’ve been thinking, too, of the photographs of Alec Soth, particularly his book NIAGARA. Soth’s photographs — one of them pictured above — whether of inanimate or deeply human subjects have this unbelievable compassion for what is on the other side of the lens, these couples posing together or alone on couches and in motels, these leftover remains of meals, these handmade signs. There are love letters in the book, too. One of them reads:

If there was a nice apartment and I have a decent job and you felt happy and thought there could be a nice history together, would you come home?

Maybe it’s an odd connection, but I think of that letter when I think of today’s poem by Timothy Liu. I think of all the if’s, and the way the world forces the existence of the conditional upon us. There is so much if when there shouldn’t have to be. I think of the absolute horror of being banned from your home for who you are and who you love. And I think of the tenderness of the relationships left on the margins that are experienced and lived within in the aftermath of shame. I think of the father and son alone, weeping, trying to continue despite so much that has been lost, refused, turned away.

When I first read this poem years ago, I found myself tearing up when Liu inserted Thoreau’s lines — If a man does not keep pace with his companions, let him travel to the music that he hears — into the middle of the poem. I had encountered Thoreau before, but his stoicism never moved me to such extremes. But within the context of a poem about the ramifications of homophobia, about the ravages of time and war and capitalism — the villages burned and the groves hacked down — I found Thoreau’s words absolutely harrowing. In today’s poem, you might argue that the father and son don’t keep pace with their companions, and, as such, are left alone. But really, their companions have abandoned them for reasons that have nothing to do with progress. And if they have something to do with progress, well, then perhaps it is worth reconsidering what progress means.

I think society has told many people that they haven’t kept pace with society. I think society has made it such that many people, trying to keep pace with society, haven’t had the means to even attempt such a feat. And I think that desire to keep pace with society is perhaps its own nightmare, this terrible cycle that repeats itself again and again, leaving so many on the margins while only a few dictate what it means to live in between the margins at all.

I love that Alec Soth photo above because of the way joy, divorce, and party are all fused so closely together that one can’t help but read the sign as something advertising a party that celebrates every earthly thing, from love to sorrow, joy to divorce, laughter to grief. The sadness of today’s poem is the way in which the father and the son are denied something inherent to themselves, and how they lose the experience of that with their former companions, and their former homes. How they left only with one another. But there is also something beautiful there, too. The way the son’s home is connected with the father’s. The way, in the poem “Remains,” that same son says I’m still your son, his hand the same size as his father’s.

I used to think that life had to be one way. When my parents divorced when I was a kid, I viewed it as a failure. I vowed not to make the same mistake as a child (yeah, I deemed it a mistake) and structured my approach to love around the resistance to such a failure. It took me a long time — and is still taking me time — to understand the ways in which we respond and live and change and grow and suffer and rejoice within the complexity of this great and vast undertaking that is, simply, being alive. I thought there was only one way to do it all. I felt ashamed when it didn’t go that way. And it almost never did. And still doesn’t. And there’s Doty again. The future diminishes but never vanishes. What a wild and beautiful thing. So often, the world closes off futures before they are even realized. Sometimes before they are even imagined.

The world shames people every day for not being enough, or for being too much. And people shame themselves every day for the same reasons and more. I think shame is the most damaging feeling we can feel. Shame makes someone not want to be who they are. It changes their relationship not just with the world, but with their own body, their own soul, their own way of loving and being. The resonant image of today’s poem — the father and son weeping, both of them alone in the face of the world, but together in their shared shame — is perhaps too familiar for so many. I would argue that our world is such that we feel most together when we share in shame rather than joy. I wish this weren’t the case, but it feels like it is. That we feel most together in some sense of communal suffering rather than communal celebration, perhaps because we feel the former so much more often than the latter. Maybe I’m wrong. But we live in a world that promises joy at the expense of so much. Shame is one consequence of such a promise. We learn to carry it with one another because sometimes it is all we can carry. It is, so often, who we are. I wish it weren’t.