12 floors above the earth - title

Jonathan Gillman
Photo: Pam Nomura  

Jonathan Gillman’s moving series of poems depicts his extraordinary father’s drift into dementia, the love that father evoked in his family, and the author’s turbulent relationship with him, followed by reconciliation and a sense of his own mortality. The world of music is a leitmotif throughout the book, which reads like a novel. David Watts writes, “My Father, Humming begins with music—the father’s, the son’s, the musicality of the poetic line—then moves to the poignant moments when a son watches the dreams of a father fade into dependency, disability. Throughout this tribute is the keen eye of an attentive son, translating his anguish, his anger, his celebrations of life into the words on the page. In the final analysis, it is music that keeps it all together, in the notes,in the life, in the way we hear the words, and finally in the way the spirit continues on.” William O’Daly adds the following: “My Father, Humming is an inspiring, heartbreaking, and hopeful work—in its tone, imagery, recurring themes, and pacing—moving in the way blood moves through the body.

Front cover design: Peter Good
The poems enact a fascinating tension between melody and gradual dying, and in the beautiful, almost serene, final section arrive at an awareness of what cannot be resolved but only lived as fully as possible.” And this from Honor Moore: “ ‘We have to go back,’ a dying man says, as the car pulls from the curb, ‘I’ve left my memories.’ It is his son, the author of My Father,Humming, who later finds them, turns them in the lock of what’s forgotten to open the dimension of what he can get back: his father at the piano, ‘humming’ as he plays Beethoven, insisting he will make millions even at 85, shouting when his son tries Bach, ‘That is not how/it’s supposed to be played!’ Jonathan Gillman’s quiet and surprising collection has the feel of discovery and illumination. Listen! ‘This way’s mine,’ he writes, ‘this long and slow—/finding my own music/in the notes/the Maestro wrote.’ ”

Jonathan Gillman is the head of the Theater Department at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, a public magnet high school, and the Director of Looking In Theatre, a “teen interactive social issue” theater group. In addition to poetry, he writes fiction, non-fiction, plays and children’s stories. For more information about the author, visit www.myfatherhumming.com.

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ISBN 978-1-936482-37-5

Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Gillman

6" x 9" paperback, 104 pages



A House with Music in It, II

I’m twelve,
coming home with friends,
bounding up
onto the porch
in the Indiana
summer afternoon,
crickets and cicadas
making a loud
whirring with their wings,
sweat sticking
to forehead, shirt and neck,
baseball glove
under my arm.
I stop when I hear
the piano from inside,
turn toward my friends,
shake my head,
pull open the door,
shut it behind me
without a click,
step into
the cool dark of the house,
my father at the piano
straight ahead,
humming as he plays,
every now and then
a “Damn it”
as he misses a note.
He doesn’t pause,
doesn’t look up,
doesn’t change his rhythm,
as I tiptoe through,
past the table
covered with
his important work,
the air conditioner
behind it
humming its own tune.
I climb the stairs,
trying to avoid
the ones that creak.
The music—
something of Beethoven,
loud and passionate—
follows me
down the hall
to the door
of my room;
I step inside,
shut it out,
open the windows,
toss my mitt aside,
turn on the radio,
smile a little
at Chuck Berry singing
“Roll over, Beethoven,”
flop down on the bed,
pull out my
toy baseball game,
and go on
being twelve
in nowhere Indiana
on a sticky
summer afternoon.

Down the Stairs

My father’s going
downstairs to bed,
my mother helping.
It looks like a disaster
waiting to happen—
tied together by a rope
running from waist to waist—
like the invisible tether
which has bound them for so long
neither can remember
a time before
when they were free
to fall on their own,
not pull the other with them.
She’s done this since
the time he took a tumble
and it was hours
before she got him up.
At each step
his foot searches the air
for the one below,
my mother above, waiting;
after he’s stood
not moving for a while,
reminding him,
“You’re going down the stairs,
the right foot next.”
At the landing
there’s a chair
he sits on,
shuts his eyes.
She rouses him with
“Only nine more to go,”
puts her arm under his,
tries to lift him.
For a moment it’s not clear
if he will make it.
“You have to help me here,” she says,
“I can’t do this by myself,”
and when he stands,
points him down the stairs,
puts his hand on the railing,
steps back
till the rope
is taut between them,
and on they go.

Love Notes

She comes home
from a morning out,
finds on the kitchen counter
a note in his shaky hand:
“I love you,”
her full name
on the line below,
and, beneath that,
taking up half the page,
his name, signed,
first and last,
as if he was sixteen
wanting to let
the world know
what he’d discovered
and couldn’t keep secret.
She finds the same note
all over the house:
on the bathroom counter,
the dining room table,
one beside him in the study
where he sits at the computer.
She comes up behind him,
puts her arms
around his shoulders,
slides her cheek
next to his—
“I love you too,”
saying his name, first and last,
and nuzzling his ear,
smiles as she adds her own,
the one her parents gave her
and the one they’ve shared
for all these years.
He turns his head toward her.
In his look she sees
he doesn’t know
what she’s talking about.
She picks the note up
that sits beside him,
kisses it,
holds it in front
for him to see—
still no response,
his face as blank
as the computer screen
he’s been staring at.

My Parents’ Hands

In the night
he makes his way
back to the piano,
sits on the bench in silence,
no one else around,
looks at the music
open before him;
it makes no sense,
its black marks floaters
drifting this way, that;
every time he blinks
more appear
till the air
is filled with them.
He shuts the light off,
sits there in the dark,
fingers fluttering to
a lifetime of
sonatas and concertos
that echo in his head.
His wife beside him
he did not hear come in
leans over,
starts to speak;
he shushes her.
“Bend closer,” he wants to say;
“Put your ear next to mine,
and you can hear it too.”
Instead, she takes the hand
that joined with hers
years before,
kisses the fingers,
raises it to her face,
holds it against her skin,
blue veins on the back
pulsing against her cheek.

Visiting My Father

I go into my father’s room,
lay my hand on his.
“Hi, sweetie,” he says,
eyes shut, voice strong.
It’s a surprise,
a green sprig in the desert;
he hasn’t spoken in days.
“No,” I say,
thinking he means my mother—
he never calls me that.
“She’s in the other room.
This is your son.”
And though I stay there
hand on his
twenty minutes longer,
he says nothing more,
but goes on sleeping,
or whatever it is he does,
eyes shut, to pass his days.

And then,
the person who never
opens his eyes,
while I am standing there
holding his hand,
opens them, wide,
looks right at me,
as if he knows me
and is surprised, or glad.
“Remember me,” I say,
“I’m your son,”
saying the nickname
only he calls me.
His mouth opens part way,
as if he’s going to speak,
or smile, or both—
then nothing—
it stays open,
opens wider.
His eyes close,
his mouth follows,
his breathing settles in.

he opens his eyes
even wider
and stares at me,
says in answer
to my question,
“Yes, I’m warm enough—
Don’t squeeze my hand too tight.”
And then,
with my hand
still squeezing his,
but not so tight,
he brings his other over,
fingers thin and bony—
paws at the air with it
until it finds
what it is looking for
and settles down on mine.

My Father, Humming, II

I’m at my father’s piano,
playing a piece
he used to play,
but not the way
he played it,
not, he’s sure, the way
Herr Beethoven intended.
He’s hearing it,
not sleeping as he often is,
and he’s not happy with it.
Before, he would have
yelled out “Stop!”
or booed, or yowled,
“You’re trying to kill me!”
He’s not saying much these days.
Before I’ve played five notes,
he’s choking, loud and drastic.
Stop now, I think,
call 9-1-1,
then rush up,
see what I can do.
The caretaker is there—
she’s raised the bed,
he’s sitting upright,
nothing else to do,
let him work it through.
I keep playing.
The choking gets
louder, more alarming,
a rattle in the throat,
as if this is the end.
My stomach tightens,
but I don’t stop—
and this goes on a while,
duet for a son
playing on his father’s piano
while his father
gasps his last.
But then the choking lets up,
gets quieter,
changes to a cough,
more like the clearing of a throat,
and stops.
He’s still,
and I’m still playing.
I take a breath, relax;
as I go on, I hear,
so faint at first
I’m not sure what I’m hearing:
mmm mmmm, mmm mmmm
he’s humming, tunelessly,
along with me,
the way he used to
when he was playing.
It gets stronger, surer;
there’s no mistaking it—
and we go on like this,
the two of us,
making music,
until the piece is done.


In my father’s music room,
his music on his desk,
his glasses next to it,
as if he took them off
a moment ago
and in another
will put them on again;
in the room above,
where he slept so long,
the bed already gone.
From his piano
the opening notes
of “Moonlight”
hang near the ceiling,
against the walls,
wood and stone,
so strong,
a stranger walking in
would feel them and stop,
unable to go on—
vibrations of
the metal strings
lower and lower
till they have reached a place
ear can’t hear
but heart still knows.

End Notes

I sit down at
my father’s piano.
The first slow notes
of Beethoven’s “Moonlight”
echo in the room
till the air’s alive with them,
striking to the bottom of the heart
and lower,
down to the core.

Here, in this room,
through these keys, these notes,
these fingers and this heart,
what he gave me
years ago
I now give back to him;
and if I listen
as I play,
I still can hear
his spirit humming
loud and clear.

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