Michael Spence’s poem, “The Unbroken Code” was an Honorable Mention in the 2009 James Hearst Poetry Prize from issue 294.2.
Note from the author: “The image of blackberry vines coming over the back fence and encroaching on the yard of a childhood home came to mind as I found myself writing a poem about my father. It occurred to me that his natural quietness was perfect for the kind of engineering design work he did for both the Space Program and various military projects. In my mind, he was bound in his silence as someone might be wrapped in those blackberry vines. This was, in an everyday sense, both heroic and tragic: this quiet meant he’d never reveal secrets, but it also rendered him unable to admit or express his deepest thoughts and uncertainties. His mother’s apparent suicide–an event that was rarely mentioned and whose cause was left to dark rumor–seemed to me a strong motivation for his keeping his feelings inside himself. I tried in the poem to bring out the complexity of his character and actions resulting from this silence, which made him completely trustworthy in his job, yet hampered and rather cut off in his private life. The title is meant both ways: a code of honor that won’t break, but also a code that can’t be cracked, even by its keeper.”
The Unbroken Code
The Plant demanded silence. Something thorned And tangled as the blackberries, which waved Behind our house. Tentacles reaching
For me—this is what I saw when Mother
Said: While Father’s at the Plant, he’s not allowed
To talk; he’s building secret things.
My comic books explained the Code of Silence— I could see the ritual to get your job.
Tied to a chair as someone hissed questions, You clamped your jaws tighter than the vise Numbing your hand, and wouldn’t even utter Your name. You were the perfect man to draw
Blueprints of missiles and anti-missile Missiles whose letters never spelled a word. The rockets you designed flew astronauts Two hundred fifty thousand miles away—
To a place beyond sound. For you, these heroes Signed a giant photo of the moon.
I thought for years all fathers held their tongues. Your children nearly grown, the family ringed The Christmas tree; to catch our banter, Mom Set out a tape recorder. When it played back, Your voice was missing: as if you weren’t there.
Near middle age, I crossed the ocean with you To Australia. We swam through water hiding The Great Barrier Reef. Jellyfish trailed
Tentacles in the vast cold your sub had patrolled, Where the slightest word could be your death.
I asked about torpedoes. Short as a fuse Or the rapid taps of Morse you’d sent
As a radar man, you quoted your father—
Useless talk is so much crow-squawking.
I wondered why you’d been born with a mouth.
Now you are gone. Attempting to construct The puzzle of your past from these fragments, A meager handful, I’m forced to cut my own.
I learned your father left his family nothing— No money, food, or word when he’d return— The times he’d disappear for weeks in the swamp
To hunt. His girlfriends were a secret, too; One the whole town whispered. What promise
Made you keep those other secrets? Did you blame
Yourself for the way your mother died?
That day, Grandfather leaves once more to hunt
“Two-legged deer.” Your mother sends you out
To play, then sets the house on fire. Lifting
His shotgun, she ends her darkness with a shout
Of light. You never spoke of this: thorns
Had wrapped your throat, cinching off the words. I didn’t see—your flesh sealed over the barbs.
Michael Spence retired last Valentine’s Day from thirty years of driving public-transit buses in the Seattle area. His poems have appeared recently in THE HUDSON REVIEW, MEASURE, THE NEW CRITERION, THE SEWANEE REVIEW, SHENANDOAH, and TAR RIVER POETRY. New work is forthcoming in THE HUDSON REVIEW, THE SEWANEE REVIEW, and SOUTHWEST REVIEW. His fourth book, THE BUS DRIVER’S THRENODY, was released last September by Truman State University Press. He was awarded a 2014 Literary Fellowship from Artist Trust of Washington State. His fifth book, UMBILICAL, is slated to be published by St. Augustine’s Press this fall as the winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize.”