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Scotch and Sun

Scotch and Sun

Home from night shift, my father
was too wired from fighting warehouse fires
to sleep—so he’d sip several Dewar’s,
then rouse me for a morning at the beach.
There the combination of scotch and sun
would knock him out for a couple hours
while I invented tasks near the breakage—
skimming clam shells, counting one-legged gulls—
till he woke to hoist me onto his shoulders
and march into the sea, deeper with each step.
He’d look down to find a boy propped there,
his blazing, acceptable burden, his crown, almost
an abstraction shimmering from his skull,
some image of himself he once believed he’d been.
Then arch his neck to shut away the glare.
That noon I leaned too far back, back until my head
dipped into the combers, then below…
I struggled, thrashing my legs,
but my father clasped them tighter, closer
to his chest, oblivious, and went on
breasting the rollers, teasing the undertow.
Those broad shoulders eclipsed the sun.
Then hands grasped my hair—I was choking—
while my startled father stammered excuses
to the impromptu chorus of staring bathers.
He was more surprised than I, more scared.
He shook when he told my furious mother.
I simply had no idea, he said. Jesus,
that boy almost drowned
though I held him in my arms.

—Michael Waters (from Bountiful, Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon, 1992)



It’s not the best poem from the collection, but it’s one that has stuck with me since I first heard it, in 1993 or 1994, in a classroom in Little Rock, when Waters was there to read it. It describes that strange occurrence, one I grew up experiencing, when parents simultaneously demonstrate care and disregard.

It struck me, however, reading it again last night, that the last line would be much better if though were while.

More on though:

It’s interesting to consider the difference between though and while. If you read the last few lines as reporting, a representation of what the father says, then though‘s a pretty good choice. He’s incredulous that the boy could drown so easily in his arms and that his arms weren’t sufficient protection. That reading comes through with while too, but not quite as pointedly. While, on the other hand, invites into the father’s exclamation the poet’s voice. It softens the father’s incredulousness and editorializes it. Through the father’s words, one hears the poet also saying “I almost drowned while father held me.” So perhaps though is better, but I still like the softened while.