by Jim Murdoch
In my dreams the dead are silent.
No, that is not exactly true,
they are assigned words they used when
still alive. It is up to them
to imbue them with new meanings.
My father says, “I love you,” but
when he sees that I can’t hear him
he says again, “I love you, son,”
only this time the look in his
eyes is so pained that I think that
I might finally understand
but there is no way to be sure
because I am forbidden to
respond and so we just stand there,
staring, waiting for me to wake.
by Jim Murdoch
My dad used to give me marks out of ten:
Homework—seven out of ten,
the dishes—eight out of ten.
Anything less than a five
came with a clip on the ear.
Marks is merely another word for scars.
I have those too, the ones you
can see and the ones you can’t.
I’d give my childhood a three.
That’s me being generous.
Dad’s no longer here and so I have to
mark myself. Is that what you
were waiting to hear, doctor?
What do you think this poem
might be worth? Maybe an eight?
Jim Murdoch is a Scottish writer living just outside Glasgow. His
poetry appeared regularly in small press magazines during the seventies
and eighties. In the nineties he turned to prose writing and has
completed four novels and a collection of short stories. His second
novel, Stranger than Fiction, was published in July 2009. More
information about Murdoch is available on his blog, The Truth About
On “Visitation Rights” and “Marks”:
Poetry is fiction. Many people forget that and assume it’s
autobiography. Both of these poems include a father and son but
I am not that son. Just as prosers sometimes write in the first
person (but more often the third) the default setting for many
poets is the first person; you want your reader to identify with the
I find it interesting in ghost stories how arbitrary rules are often
imposed on ghosts by their authors. They’ve not moved on
because they have unfinished business and yet concluding that
business is made difficult for them by limiting how and to whom
they can communicate. But ‘Visitation Rights’ is not a ghost
poem. My father is dead. I’m going to learn nothing new from
him now no matter how many times I dream about him. We are
the authors of our own dreams. We grant any visitation rights.
Poetry is metaphor. Most people would be surprised if they
realised how figurative our day-to-day speech is. We all
immediately know what someone is talking about when they
speak of the scars of the past. ‘Marks’ hinges on the fact that
‘mark’ is a synonym for ‘scar’ and ‘marks’ also indicate a grade.
This poem leans heavily on the fact that meanings are not rigid;
there can be resonances.
My father never scored (another form of defacement) my
performances as a child and I’ve never had a ‘clip on the ear’
but he was a judgmental person. He expected his children to
rise to the challenge although sometimes the bar was set too
high. You can’t be said to have failed if you’ve done your best
but it can feel like failure.
‘Marks’ is written as if it was being addressed to a
psychotherapist. We all know that abused kids can go on to
become abusers in adult life. Here is a case of a victim playing
a dual role taking over the father’s position and harshly
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Volume 5, Number 1
Copyright © 2010
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to material
published in the Apple
Valley Review are retained
by the individual authors