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Audre Lorde’s "Father Son and Holy Ghost"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde

Introduction and Excerpt from "Father Son and Holy Ghost"

In Audre Lorde’s "Father Son and Holy Ghost," the speaker is remembering her father. She emphasizes that she has not as yet visited her father’s grave. That admission alerts the reader that the poem is focusing on earlier memories. While that first impression prompts questions in the reader’s mind, answers begin to form in the second movement.

Another question might be begged regarding the title and what it implies. By invoking the Christian Holy Trinity, the speaker is implying that the spiritual nature of her memory will include three levels of understanding of the father: he was the progenitor of the speaker (Father), he lived a life of consistent, moral behavior (Son), and he revered his wife, the mother of his children (Holy Ghost).

The speaker’s devotion to her father is displayed in a Dickinsonian, elliptical style; the poet has not added any unnecessary word to her drama. For example, instead of merely stating that her father would come home in the evening, grasp the doorknob, and enter the home, she shrinks all of that information in "our evening doorknobs."

Because doorknobs remain the same whether it be morning, noon, evening, or night, the speaker metaphorically places the time of her father’s arrival by describing the doorknob by the time of day of his arrival.

Excerpt from "Father Son and Holy Ghost"

I have not ever seen my father’s grave.

Not that his judgment eyes
have been forgotten
nor his great hands’ print
on our evening doorknobs
one half turn each night

To read the entire poem, please visit "Father Son and Holy Ghost" at Poetry Foundation.

Sonia Sanchez Reads "Father Son and Holy Ghost"

Commentary

The speaker is offering a tribute to her father, whom she revers with special love and affection, along with admiration for his many fine, upstanding qualities.

First Movement: An Unusual Admission

The speaker begins by reporting that she has never visited her father’s grave. This startling suggestion has to wait for explanation, but the possibilities for the speaker’s reasons assert themselves for the reader immediately. Because seeing the grave of a deceased loved one is customarily part of the funeral experience, it seems anomalous that the speaker would have skipped that part of the ceremony.

On the other hand, because she does not tell the reader otherwise, she might have skipped the funeral entirely. But whether the failure to visit the grave is associated with a close or distant relationship with the father remains to be experienced.

And oddly, either situation could be prompting that failure to visit: if there is resentment at the parent, one might fail to visit in order to avoid those feelings, or if there is deep pain because of a close, loving relationship with the parent, then seeing the grave would remind the bereft that that relationship has been severed.

By choosing not to explain or even assert certain facts, the speaker points only to the facts and events that are important for her purpose. And her purpose, as the title alerts, will be to associate her father’s death with profundity and devotion stemming from a deep religious dedication.

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Second Movement: Not Forgotten

The speaker now asserts that just because she had not visited his grave does not mean that she has forgotten her father’s characteristics; she still remembers his "judgement eyes." She also remembers his arriving home from work in the evenings, turning the doorknobs just a "half turn." It was likely the sound of that doorknob that alerted the speaker that her father was home.

The father’s work has left him "drabbled," but he was a large man and remained "silent," indicating that he was a thoughtful man, who entertained a "whole day’s wish" to return home to his loving family. He paid attention to his children, likely instructing them to "shape" up, assisting them in becoming the decent people he knew they could be.

Now, those same "evening doorknobs" that sounded out under the grasp of her father’s large hand simply "wait," for he will no longer be grasping them and entering his home every evening.

Oddly, those doorknobs can no longer sense the household members as they pass them. This personification of "doorknobs" indicates that the speaker is asserting that anyone seeing those family members would see a changed lot of people—changed because of the absence of a belovèd father.

Third Movement: Consistency and Morality

The speaker then reports that her father brought home a "different woman" every week, and his act of bringing home that different woman was consistent. He was also consistent in taking his one glass of liquor and his engagement with an equally small amount of marijuana.

That the father took only one drink and only a limited amount of "grass"or "weed" becomes a characteristic to be celebrated, admired, and even emulated. His consistency has made a positive impression upon the speaker, and she remains ever ready to celebrate his morality and consistently highly spiritual behavior.

Repeating the claim of a "different woman" every week, the speaker remarks that each woman had her "mother’s face." She then asserts the reason for the women with her mother’s face is that her father "knew and loved / but one." She is likely employing the term "knew" in the biblical sense; thus, she is asserting that her father’s relationship with those women remained platonic.

The speaker remains cognizant of his father’s consistent personality and behavior. While it may be expected that a man would engage with other women after his wife’s death, that he remained attached to his wife’s visage and engaged sexually only with his wife because he loved only her remains unusual and makes its mark on the speaker’s memory. Her father’s decency and high level of morality are celebrated in her memory of his behavior.

Fourth Movement: A Well-Lived Life

The speaker says that her father "died in silence." She asserts that he loved "creation," and he lived in a way that appropriately corresponded with that love. Because of the positive, admirable aspects of her father’s personality and behavior, she understands the appropriateness of his "judgements" especially "on familiar things." As he judged his family, he was able to guide them in morally uplifting ways.

That he died on "January 15th" means that everything he knew about his daughter stopped on that date, and the speaker/daughter knows that anything she accomplishes after that date will remain unknown to her beloved father. Likely, she is saddened, knowing this limit will remain, and she has no way of controlling that situation.

Fifth Movement: Life’s Fulfillment

The speaker then asserts again that she has never visited her father’s grave, but in concluding, she claims that she had never done so because it might maker her "go into dust." The biblical passage in Genesis 3:19 asserts,

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

The speaker fears that her strong reaction to visiting her father’s grave might result in her own death. And while she may also be remembering the Longfellow quatrain, featuring the assertion, "'Dust thou art, to dust returnest', / Was not spoken of the soul," she is not ready to leave her physical encasement just yet.

The spirit of the "father son and holy ghost," the Christian Holy Trinity, becomes a fulfillment of the father’s live: he lived a well-balanced, harmonious life that the speaker can whole-heartedly celebrate. His consistency, his silent strength, and his simple guidance will remain with the speaker, and if one day she decides to visit that grave, she will be able to celebrate all the endearing qualities that her father exhibited.

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes

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