My Father Would Not Show Us

Ingrid de Kok


Ingrid de Kok

Nationality: African, South African

Ingrid de Kok is a South African poet. She is a Fellow of the University of Cape Town.

Her best-known piece of writing is Our Sharpeville.

With this poem, ‘My Father Would Not Show Us’, the speaker reveals the effects of losing her father. Since she refers to her and her siblings as “us” in the context of having lived with their father at the time of his death, it is clear that she was young when he died, and that his death came as a great shock to her. The effects of this loss are described throughout ‘My Father Would Not Show Us‘ as the speaker describes the present state of her dead father as he lies in a coffin, to the man with the “wry smile” whom she had always known.

My Father Would Not Show Us by Ingrid de Kok


Father Would Not Show Us Analysis

Stanza One

‘Which way do we face to talk to the dead?’ Rainer Maria Rilke

The opening of ‘My Father Would Not Show Us’ reveals the speaker’s feelings toward seeing her dead father. He had been dead for five days, and his face did not seem natural to her. The use of the word “organised” implies that some effort had been made to make her father’s face look like it should, but the attempts were apparently useless. Thus, as she looks upon her father’s face, she sees only the remnant of what was left of him.


Stanza Two

My father’s face
is organised for me to see.

The speaker turns her attention to the room, feeling that the room was cold. The physical feeling in the room reflects the theme of death that is prominent throughout ‘My Father Would Not Show Us’. The speaker can feel the coldness of death physically and emotionally as she looks on the face of her dead father. She describes his coffin as “borrowed”. It is unclear why she refers to the coffin as “borrowed” since it is obviously not something one would be able to return. However, the use of the word suggests that the speaker is still in a state of shock, and is unable to accept that the coffin is her father’s permanent place of rest.


Stanza Three

It’s cold in here
the pine one has not yet been delivered.

The speaker then explains her expectations as she went to her father’s funeral. She expected that his face may not look as it did when he was alive. She calls his face “inverted” which suggested that the man she saw in the coffin did not resemble her father. She expected that, but for some reason, she did not expect to see the “pyjamas” she remembered so clearly. She describes them as “soft” and “unfrozen” which seems to be contrary to her description of the room and her father’s face. While everything else around her is cold and hard, her father’s clothing looks soft and comfortable.


Stanza Four

Half-expected this inverted face
unfrozen collar of his striped pyjamas.

The speaker is still referring to her father’s pajamas when she says that the sight of them was “the last time” she was “allowed to remember [her] childhood as it might have been”. This indicates the drastic effect this loss had on the speaker’s life. She dreams of what her childhood was like in the past, and what it might have continued to be like if she still had her father alive and well. As it is, glancing at his soft pajamas is her last chance to remember her childhood as it was with her father alive. The childhood she would have lived with her father, she described as something “louder” and “braver” than what it would be without him. The speaker’s father, then, seems to have been a loud and brave man, one who commanded attention and notice. Thus, his absence would be greatly felt.

The speaker remembers her home, a place with “a tin roof” which would be “crowded” when it was “hailed upon”. This suggests that when a storm came, her father’s house was the gathering place. It was loud and crowded. The speaker’s father seems to be the kind of man who would draw people in and offer them a place of shelter and entertainment until the storm passed. This brief description gives some insight into the man who died, allowing the reader to acknowledge him as the man whom the speaker remembers and misses. She describes his “wry smile” and “half-turned face” which suggests that her father had a sense of humor which she would always remember.


Stanza Five

This is the last time I am allowed
my father’s wry smile, his half-turned face.

In stanza five of ‘My Father Would Not Show Us’, for some reason, the speaker specifically says that her father “Would not show us how to die”. The use of the word “us” suggests that the speaker has siblings who would also be mourning the passing of their father. The fact that she specifically mentions that he would not show them how to die, suggests that he was in the habit of showing his children how to do many other things. However, when it came to whatever illness overtook him, he kept it well hidden from their knowledge. This explains why death seems to be a shock to the speaker. This stanza, however, reveals that the death was not a surprise to her father. He rather expected it, which is why he “hid away”. She describes him as having had a life which was “behind the curtains”. It would appear that when he got sick, he kept it hidden from his children and stayed in his room behind curtains and flowers. The speaker describes a room full of flowers as the place where “he lay”. It would appear, then, that many other people were aware of the serious nature of the man’s illness. They sent flowers until they filled the room. Still, because he kept the details hidden from his children, the speaker was not prepared to lose him.


Stanza Six

My father would not show us how to die.
He hid, he hid away.
Now the tunnelling sound of the dogs next door;
everything he hears is white.

The speaker imagines, at this point, what her father must have felt and thought during his last days. He remembered himself as “the rag-and-bone man”. It is not entirely clear what the speaker means by this description of her father, but it is clear that she imagines that he must have spent some of his last hours reflecting upon his childhood days, in which he would pass “his mother’s gate in the morning light”. She imagines that he remembered “the tunnelling sound of the dogs next door”. However, for some reason, the speaker seems to think that everything her father heard in his memories as he lay there dying, was “white”. The color perhaps represents death, and this description suggests that the speaker’s father experienced all of his final memories in the context of impending death.


Stanza Seven

My father could not show us how to die.
face to the wall, he lay.

In the seventh stanza of ‘My Father Would Not Show Us’, the speaker repeats that her father “could not show [them] how to die”. She seems to resent the fact that she was not able to be with him in his final days because he shut them out, not wanting anyone to see his pain as the life drained from him. The speaker repeats twice that her father “turned away”. She says that he did not turn back to call for anyone or to even speak a word or a name. Rather, with his “face to the wall” he laid there alone until the day of his death. The speaker does not make it clear how long her father was sick, but she does reveal that he kept to himself during his last days on earth, and that because of this, his death came as a hard blow to her, and she began to resent the fact that he didn’t allow her to see him in his final days.

Allisa Corfman Poetry Expert
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.

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