Fathers seldom play bit parts in poetry; that is, when dad shows up at the door of a poem, something serious is happening. Anyone two courses deep into American poetry has scraped an ear on Roethke’s papa’s buckle, or logged hours divining Plath (herself divining Electra, she of the original daddy issues), or encountered any number of other fathers moving “through dooms of love” (as Cummings wrote of his) or through a stockpile of other fatherly tropes all too familiar to list. (Edgar Guest has one of my favorites: “We look to him for theories/ But look to ma for action.”)
What makes fathers figure into poems so heavily? From whence comes this reliable tension? (Forget for a moment how many fathers long for their kids to grow up to be poets.) Like any parent in a poem, a father’s presence is loaded — he is both a vision of the past and a glimpse into the future.
Some poets have sought to answer the question of just who one’s daddy is by examining a force more imposing than a father’s presence: his absence. Sharon Olds, James Dickey, Stanley Kunitz have all made moving explorations of this negative space (recall Olds longing “to open the urn as if then/ I would finally know him.”) And Kevin Young captures this loss with stark beauty in his eighth collection, “Book of Hours,” notably in its opening poem “Obsequies”: “At night I count/ not the stars/ but the dark.”
In Young’s book, as well as in “Bicentennial,” a new volume from Dan Chiasson, fatherhood is a cycle that both repeats and invents itself — or, in Chiasson’s words, “a pattern that, by tracing it, it erases.” For Young, the death of his father left a gap that he’s still filling with words a decade later (“The grammar of grief/ gets written each day,” he writes in “Rosetta”). For Chiasson, the passing of a father he never knew has only made him loom larger.
Chiasson’s reflection on fatherhood takes many shapes and tones, as the three sections of “Bicentennial” toggle between open forms (that effortlessly balance gravity and whimsy), a pair of short plays (that will please any Beckett lover), a rattle bag of short poetic experiments (dedicated to Black Mountain dancer and children’s author Remy Charlip), and some stunning longer poems.
After an obituary informs him of his estranged father’s death, Chiasson is “fatherless in this brand-new way, observing as/ My father’s features idle inside/ and thicken my sons’ cheekbones.” And throughout his sharp fourth collection Chiasson checks himself as both a father and a son, flipping through his ownmemories in search of himself, and performing his role without a script (“We are captive to what happens in the story,” he writes in “Cosmonaut and Newsboy”).
In lesser hands, Chiasson’s self-scrutiny could be distracting; but it lends his poems a playful humanity, as in the long, satisfying title poem: “You are having your childhood now,/ And they say, yes, Daddy, and I say,/ Jokingly, but not really, how do you feel it is going.”
When this self-consciousness is filtered through the ’70s-tinted nostalgia that runs through the poems (which often take place “early in the era of the pause button”), Chiasson’s vignettes givean Instagram effect: past and present blur together and memories are recropped until they are “more real … as a representation.” Chiasson wants to do right by his children, and he counterbalances his uncertainty with a rueful freedom, as in “Father and Son”:
Only much later did they see, the two of them,
That never knowing one another, there was nothing
Not to know; that not being to begin with meant
Those later, more drastic negations negated nothing
Most remarkable about “Bicentennial” is the way Chiasson lets the push and pull of time sculpt his understanding of fatherhood. Explaining the movie “2001” to his kids in “Opening Lines,” he marvels as “the future happened before they were born; and the past, as they innately understand . . . This they learn later.” In the lullaby that concludes the poem, he writes “You could stay up, but then the past/ Would just be longer.”
Repeatedly, Chiasson bring us back to the fairgrounds of a Bicentennial celebration, and the figure of the Ferris wheel, “lit by the light it generates,” always remains in sight, full of “children having their childhoods right now,/ This late in time, as though they had to stand in line.” Chiasson’s place as a father and a son traces the same circular path, and the skill of his poetry is how each line still feels like a fresh turn: “The future doing its usual loop-de-loop,/ The sons all turning into fathers/ Until the absentminded men take the ride down.”
Split into five sections, Kevin Young’s “Book of Hours” shows us the poetin multiple lights of fatherhood: as a son dealing with the death his father (after a hunting accident in 2004), as a father mourning his child (“How to mourn what’s just// a growing want?” he writes in “Miscarriage), as an expectant dad (“Gravida” opens with “You are the inside/ of a clock”), and as a fully committed one (there are four consecutive poems titled “Teething”).
“What blossoms/ is loss,” Young writes in “Thirst,” “last year’s ash// fills a tin from the grill/ that fed us all/ last summer like a father.” It’s here, close to the center of the collection that we can feel a turn, a pivot from grief into joy, with one never fully replacing the other.
Young’s rhythms can feel hushed and measured like lines of prayer (appropriate given the book’s devotional namesake) or sighed out like bars of blues, but like the lines of “Remains,” which ring out, hang, dissolve, and reappear like lonely piano figures, they can also offer the seaching freedom of jazz. Even at their quietest — creeping down the page the way grief creeps up the throat — Young’s poems have music within them (itself a way of understanding time), and it softens the blow of the truth they tow.
Where Chiasson’s poems are staged in memory, Young gives his grief more physicality. “The cemetery bench/ still warm,” reads the entirely of “Elegy”; and elsewhere the “thieves” of the waves that “kiss the coursing sand, lick/ the coarse shores smooth/ as stone” are never far out of earshot.
In Young’s poems, loss is built into beauty, and while (for the most part) we take turns experiencing them, they never seem truly separate. As such, many of his poems (like “Thirst”) are both sad and sweet, solemn and celebratory, reading like tender eulogies for whatever a father’s future can hold:
“Like any good son, mine
still tends the dirt, watering
the bulbs long after
they’re done — with his little cup
tries to fill the darkness up.”
BOOK OF HOURS
By Kevin Young
185 pp. $26.95