I Ingrid de Kok

My Father Would Not Show Us by Ingrid de Kok

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.

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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.
  • Will Lawson says:

    This interpretation is completely wrong. She had a bad father, a father she didn’t know, a father who hid away. This was appartheid SA, a society which ( I visited) glorified macho masculine men, and everyone joined the army.
    With her father gone, she will never have another opportunity to rectify the childhood she has lost, the relationship he never built is now gone. She imagines how her father could have protected them from bad times( “storms”), and how as a result she would have been louder and braver. But her father was a troubled man, who hid without emotion behind a wall of masculinity, a figure they could see and look up to, but not connect with.
    The rag and bone man is the grim reaper, it would not be there for no reason. He is recalling his mothers death, without a mother ( and with the typically masculine father of 20th century SA) he received no emotion growing up and thus he is so detached. The “morning light” symbolises how happy he was before then. He hears white, which I think refers to his ears ringing upon finding out she died, showing his shock and how much he was affected.
    It is such a sad image, of a lonely man lying face against the wall. In his sorrow, a sorrow which he could never express due to the expectations of men, he has cut off all relationships. Either because he did so on purpose, or because he was to sad of a man to be popular. The coffin is arranged for “her” to see, implying that whilst she did have siblings, he has driven them all away. Only she comes, because she is dreaming of her childhood as it might have been, she seems at least to have some understanding of her father.
    He receives no call, or word or name, suggesting that even his wife is dead or has left him, and he is now utterly alone. This is a far sadder poem than you have realised.

  • you didn’t mention any language devices that are used in the poem so by the way thanks for explanation

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      The author takes the approach of breaking down the language used, which in itself is looking at the devices. However, if you want the techniques that the poet uses. There are several examples of enjambent. There is also a lot of figurative language used. We can probably assume that not all of the narrators “flashbacks” are necessarily valid and some are used to highlight their current feelings.

  • Liz Croft says:

    I too would take issue with the analysis of this poem. Interpretation does not allow for errors of comprehension. She is not young when her father dies – she is remembering her childhood at the time of his death and realises she can no longer pretend it was “happy”. Any hope of reconciliation at the time of his death is lost – he continued to “turn away” from his children, even when dying. This is born out by the Rilke quotation the prefaces the poem – how do you talk to dead people if they turn away from you in life?
    if you are doing this poem for GCSE (and I cannot imagine many people are coming here for any other reason) do check out my Guide to the Edexcel Relationships cluster shortly coming to Amazon!

  • Georgina Pearson says:

    I’m afraid this is a misreading of the poem. I know analysis is all down to personal interpretation but this poem suggests a very difficult childhood and therefore negative relationship with her father which brings up regret and difficult feelings while looking at his body. It is not a ‘normal’ poem bout suffering when someone dies. ‘My childhood as it might have been’ implies it wasn’t good – the following descriptions of shouting etc cement this view. It is a poem that is angry with her father, shows resentment but ultimately comes to a kind of understanding at the end. Why is he ‘five days dead’ by the time she comes to see him? The coffin is borrowed because they can’t afford (or will not pay?) for a good one – a cheap pine one is on its way etc.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Hi Georgina, thank you for your astute and valid counter-view. I think there is a lot to be said for your interpretation.

  • I would be very wary of taking this analysis as wholly accurate! To take one small example, in Stanza 6, a rag-and-bone man used to be a familiar sight up until roughly the late 1960s in Britain. He would collect people’s junk and either sell, recycle or dump it for them. In this country he would travel with a horse and trailer even though cars and vans were common, shouting his arrival in each street. In the poem my reading is that the father remembered this from his childhood as a noisy and entertaining event – children would have rushed out to see the rag-and-bone man – in contrast to the blank absence of sound now apart from the doges next door – who aren’t even barking, they’re ‘tunnelling’.

    There is a lot else in this analysis I would question, so just be careful and look at the poem for yourself!

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you for your feedback. Having read the poem I think you are probably on the money with your reading of that particular section. I would always advise anyone to read through the poem themselves anyway. Actually a big part of the enjoyment in poetry is taking a poem and trying to “decode it” don’t you think? I think a good poem means something different to most people that read it, often poems are open to interpretation by design! But I agree that your analysis of it seems pretty sharp. Hey, if you are a lover of poetry you should come write for us!

  • THANK YOU SO MUCH! This really helped :’)

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