Harder and Better: The New Masculinity of Fatherhood Poetry (on Douglas Kearney’s Patter; Oliver de la Paz’s The Boy in the Labyrinth; Craig Morgan Teicher’s The Trembling Answers; and Niall Campbell’s Noctuary)

 

 

 

 

 

In a decade of reading and writing about motherhood poetry—including an essay-review in these pages in 2019—I have found no universal truths about motherhood. However, as I’ve worked with poet Nancy Reddy to edit an anthology of motherhood poems and essays—The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood—I’ve identified plenty of common strands. Many who gave birth to children wrote poems of rigorous, miraculous physicality: pregnancy, labor, nursing, lifting, comforting, tending to small children. Those who nurtured infants did not shy away from bodily fluids: piss, vomit, snot, breast milk. Ferocity flourished; frustration, anger, and sorrow bumped up against exuberance, joy, and tenderness. Mother-poets contained many moods and were often exhausted, pulled in multiple directions by work, family, and writing. 

What of the father-poets? Are their concerns the same as those of the mothers? How does life in male bodies in a patriarchal society result in other questions to be puzzled through in poems? In her 2016 Boston Review essay “The Thing with Fathers,” Stephanie Burt articulates a difference between fatherhood and motherhood poetry that might arise from biology: “poet mothers generally start out attached to kids and then contemplate autonomy, but poet fathers start separate and then seek connection.” After reading several collections exploring fatherhood, I’ve come to agree with Burt’s assessment, though I would add a few more generalizations. In many fatherhood poems, bodies are discrete entities, resulting in the intellectual and emotional connection with the child seeming more prominent than the physical connection. Most fatherhood poems eschew the body and bodily fluids. Like mothers, many fathers are exhausted, pulled between work and family commitments, but most fathers do not get interrupted in their poems the way mothers do. Mother poets often enact their real-life interruptibility, as we see when Chelsea Rathburn ends “On Reading Maurice Sendak Instead of Anaïs Nin” by following her intruding daughter “out of the poem and the room” or when poet Sarah Vap inserts multiple exchanges with her child that happen, presumably as the poem is being written, in “from Winter: Aphorisms”: 

Between the wine wearing thin
at midnight and the miracle wine—, I declare, became king

of the bride and the bridegroom, king
of that bed. Put ladder

on fire truck? Yes, sweetheart, I continue: he slipped

to the bed of their bodies 

Uninterrupted fathers are surely a fiction—in the work-from-home digital age we’ve seen many working fathers surprised by children on camera during their news reporting and online meetings—but in poems few poet-fathers dramatize these intrusions or appear consumed by fatherhood. Fathers also do something that most mothers do not do in poems: they consider themselves vis-à-vis their own fathers. Whether they strive to measure up or they fear replicating their fathers’ sins, many of these books refer to the poets’ own fathers or other men who function as father figures.

Burt notes also that millennia of gendered expectations and roles map onto the titles “mom” and “dad.” In a socially egalitarian world, the experiences of the physical bodies of biological mothers and fathers would account for all the differences in “mother” and “father” versions of parenthood. Adoptive parents would have similar experiences to one another, no matter their sex and gender, and a trans parent’s experience would depend on whether he or she birthed and/or nursed the child, not on how he or she identified. Even for biological parents, once nursing ended, parenting roles would equalize. But we do not live in that socially egalitarian world, and social factors, in addition to making the experience of motherhood and fatherhood different, may account for the disproportionate number of poems by mothers about mothering compared to poems by fathers about fathering.

When I asked people about their favorite poems about fatherhood, most replied with poems written by adult poets about their fathers: Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” topped many lists. Certainly, in the English-language tradition individual poems about being a father stretch back at least to Ben Jonson’s 1603 “On my First Son.” However, it has not been until the last decade that multiple mainstream books of poetry have engaged with being a father. Part of the reason for this may lie in the gender roles Burt mentions. A Pew Research survey on time use shows fathers in 1965 spending sixteen minutes a day on childcare—not much fodder for fatherhood poems! By 2019 they were spending a little more than an hour a day—still half as much time as mothers—but enough to shape into verse. Perhaps more important than time spent, the 2019 survey showed that a nearly equal number of fathers and mothers (57 percent and 58 percent, respectively) saw parenthood as central to their identities. 

But even if they value the role, and even if they write the occasional piece on fatherhood, few poet-fathers have made fatherhood central to their collections. Poet-critic Vidyan Ravinthiran (also a fan of “Those Winter Sundays”) suggests that the reason for this is rooted in “the sorts of emotions that men are supposed to display in life and in poems.” Like mothers, fathers risk the label of “sentimentality” when writing about their children—a label whose association with femininity undercuts not only a father-poet’s talent, but his masculinity.

In her Boston Review piece, Burt looks at Chris Martin’s The Falling Down Dance (2015) and a number of individual poems by fathers, including pieces from F. Douglas Brown’s fatherhood collection Zero to Three (2013). (Notably, Zero to Three is the only fatherhood collection I’ve encountered so far that enters the delivery room, engaging actively with the blood and beauty of birth.) Burt concludes her essay by troubling clear-cut definitions of fatherhood poetry, referencing the poetry of trans parents including Joy Ladin, Jordan Rice, and herself. Burt’s Belmont (2013), published when she identified as Stephen Burt, contains many fatherhood poems that quietly acknowledge both joys and challenges of parenting. My favorite of these is the wry “Sunday Afternoon,” a hymn to everyone getting enough sleep: “When all the kids babies and grownups are napping at naptime / and sleep well during the day / . . . there are trombones / and harps in order, banjos, hosannas in Heaven.” A symphony of instruments celebrates “very quietly, so as not to wake the babies.”

While in 2016 few poetry collections focused primarily on fatherhood, the past few years have seen a proliferation of fatherhood-focused collections, including Geffrey Davis’s Night Angler (2019), Matthew Zapruder’s Father’s Day (2019), and even Bruce Snider’s Fruit (2020), which engages fatherhood by meditating on childlessness. Father-poets are moving away from sober meditations on their own fathers, turning increasingly to life with children, thereby marking new territory. “The new poetry of fatherhood asks which [social] roles to reject, which to accept, and which to reconfigure, and it shows how it feels to answer such questions,” Burt posits, and at the end of 2020, fatherhood has been increasingly “reconfigured.” 

When my oldest niece was born my fiancé (now husband) remarked, “Now that your sister has named her first child ‘Janowyn,’ we can name our kids ANYTHING!” His point, that my sister had blasted the doors off my Mexican-American family’s naming conventions, is how I think of Douglas Kearney’s Patter (2014). Innovating with form and music, Kearney performs and parodies the conventions of fatherhood poetry while showing that it can employ a broad range of tones, style, and content. This landmark book set the stage for all kinds of acts to follow. More recently, three collections, Oliver de la Paz’s The Boy in the Labyrinth (2019), Craig Morgan Teicher’s The Trembling Answers (2017), and Niall Campbell’s Noctuary (2019), have carved a new space for father-poets, a space of intensive attention and care, a space that is often associated with mothers. Teicher and de la Paz are parenting older children with special physical and mental needs. Both poets push well beyond the intellectual engagement with a child and delve into the emotional and physical. Campbell, writing about his child’s earliest years—infancy and toddlerhood—directly names and refutes traditional masculinity. All three collections show not just how fatherhood is, like motherhood, complex and consuming, but they demonstrate a range of ways one can “father,” which, in turn, expands the range of masculinity, a move that benefits us all.

Taking on race, in vitro fertilization, miscarriage, and bad fathers everywhere, Patter is also wildly experimental in its use of graphics and nonce forms. The title, a reference to the Latin pater for father and to “the patter of little feet”—a line from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Children’s Hour” that Kearney includes in an epigraph—is but the first signal of glorious wordplay to follow. Patter dwells both in the intellectual and the physical. It considers fatherhood in general and Black fatherhood specifically, while also mining the lived experience of a father who has weathered infertility, miscarriage, IVF, and finally, the birth of two children.

Kearney both fulfills and skewers some of poetry’s fatherhood tropes. First, he writes about fathers who came before him—not just his own father, but a who’s-who list of bad dads from history and literature. In the section “Father of the Year,” Kearney considers Titus Andronicus, Noah, Darth Vader, Jim Trueblood from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the everyday, as displayed in the poem titled “Daddies! On Playgrounds on Wednesdays.” In this piece, defensive daddies struggle to explain what they are doing on the playground on a Wednesday. This poem critiques the way both men and women reinforce gendered parenting roles (shouldn’t Daddy be at the office on a weekday?), while also making fun of the discomfort men feel in a space populated by mothers and children, calling attention to the men’s “hairy nostrils,” “hairy nipples,” and “hairy narrow hips” in contrast with the “lovely mothers.” Vader’s poem is a handwritten application for “Father of the Year,” a form that contains questions and answers:

25) Day you died? What I did killed me already
26) Congratulations on becoming a father!

                    What have you learned? I had a lot to do to dim my son
          26. a) how so? To dim him was to turn him just like me 

Embedded in this and other poems is an underlying fear common to much fatherhood poetry (as well as many hit movies)—the fear that the father, himself an imperfect man, will “turn [the child] just like me.”

“Raise,” the first poem in this section, opens with “to be daddy’s to ascend, steady, into cruelty.” Here, Kearney provides a basic character arc for the fathers who are to follow. The next poem, “Shaken,” contains an epigraph from Safebaby.org, reminding readers that there are resources to help overwhelmed parents. Kearney uses slanted and overlaid lines with words of varying font size to create a sense of chaos in a poem about shaking a baby. His study in cruelty juxtaposes lush musicality with the horror of the scene: “no shame in wanting to shake. / to scramble scream to sugared shush / a matter of shifting shriek.” Notably, the poem speaks to both fathers and mothers, acknowledging that mothers, too, can be cruel or out of control. 

Douglas Kearney, “Shaken.” Reprinted from Patter, copyright © 2014 Douglas Kearney, by permission of Red Hen Press.

The font becomes larger, creating urgency in its exhortation to “calm down, / sir. calm down, / ma’am.” and to “stop,” which serves both as a command to the parent and as the inner thoughts of the parent whose child will not stop: “what you got in your hands      you shaking    won’t     stop.” Kearney plays both sides—empathizing with the overwhelmed parents and calling attention to the horrific act.

Kearney “reconfigures” fatherhood as a role and as a poetic subject by placing it alongside motherhood, and by considering not just mothers’, but fathers’ bodies. One central concern in the book is his wife’s miscarriage, which Kearney examines and re-examines in visual/concrete poems in the section titled “Miscarriages.” “Sonnet Done Red” starts with abstract consideration of the miscarrying body. Variations on the lines “I love your body” and “I hate it” overlap and intertwine, such that “it” suggests both a hatred for “your body” and for the miscarriage itself. On first read, these lines struck me as merciless; likely the would-be mother does not need her partner’s hatred of her body piled atop her own. Later, I saw these lines as an honest and simple expression of powerlessness from the partner who is not carrying the child. “The Miscarriage: A Sunday Funny” uses comic book panels to shift “woman” atop “bed” to “woman” atop “blood”

Douglas Kearney, “The Miscarriage: A Sunday Funny.” Reprinted from Patter, copyright © 2014 Douglas Kearney, by permission of Red Hen Press.

The form is powerful, yet the reader is positioned as an outsider viewing the spectacle of miscarriage, rather than as the person physically losing the child. The reader, like the father, is one step removed.

Kearney’s consideration of body becomes less abstract and more visceral when he considers his own body in poems like “Out My Hands,” in which he writes, “just because I’m jerking off don’t mean I don’t want babies.” This poem appears in the section playfully named “Goooooo or Goooooo or Goooooo”—a reference to both the sperm collected in a jar for IVF and the coos of a future child. Kearney goes where few father-poets have gone before, into the “men’s room,” where he watches pornography and suffers a bit:

this spit of mine’s too filthy and could kill these kids-to-be
so I stroke bone dry to fill the sterile cup.
it’s days before the smut flakes off my cock. but so what?

Short, percussive, Anglo-Saxon words create a comic tone that becomes serious when he considers his wife’s much more difficult journey: 

when a curtain and a surgeon saw a furrow into N,
there’ve been seven months of hurling for her waist to turn vagina.

A few Greek and Latinate terms like “curtain,” “surgeon,” and “vagina” add weight to the gloss of pregnancy and C-section; additionally, the image of the “saw” cutting a “furrow into N” eclipses the chafing of “bone dry” masturbation. The pregnancy and birth are literally and figuratively “Out My Hands” for the father, whose hands help produce the sperm before he surrenders and waits. 

Kearney also considers physicality as it manifests in racism. The section “It Is Made for Children” is pocked with nonce forms “for children” like fable variations and a word-search puzzle, titled “Word Hunt,” in which the reader is to search for terms like “intelligent,” “innocent,” and “beautiful” in a grid where the letters combine only to spell the n-word. He demonstrates the disjuncture between how he sees his Black children and how the world may see them. Pieces like “Hood” reframe fairy tales, casting the story of Red Riding Hood onto the real-life threats against and murder of Black children in hoodies. The multi-modal, four-part “Thank You But Please Don’t Buy My Children Clothes with Monkeys on Them” considers the conflation of Black babies with monkeys, noting that “history has a history of blueblacking black babies blue.” The “blue” here suggests the blues and sadness, as well as the blue of asphyxiation. “History” comes to stand not just for something in the past, but the nearly weekly reports of Black people killed—by police, by militias, by neighbors. The wordplay in this poem grows more and more intense. The rhythm propels the reader forward to an ending she does not want to reach: 

black babies’s found up in trees and on sidewalks
          we fetch them with dust-bins and mops when it’s done.

This poem that begins with a polite request, “Thank You But,” and an image of a newborn in footie pajamas decorated with monkeys, ends with a sickeningly familiar scene in which “we”—Black parents—“fetch” the bodies of their murdered Black children from “trees” and “sidewalks.” By the end of the section, it becomes clear that what is “Made for Children” is racism itself. 

The physical body emerges celebratory at the end of the book in “I Have a Penis! Mama Has a Penis!” Again, Kearney uses tone masterfully, amplifying his daughter’s declaration in ode-like, exclamatory stanzas: “it’s nautical, my daughter’s penis, / a craft of sail, propeller, or oar, / madcap ship of the frothy bath sea penis!” The poem becomes a battle between his daughter’s certainty and his own insistence on correction, which he pokes fun at: “I teeter at her swelling ranks / and slip upon the blood slick wake / panting VAGINA . . . VAGINA . . .” The father is slipping, near defeated, his “tongue, red as a teacher’s pen is.” Though he aims to set her straight, “penis,” rendered as “pen is,” sounds the final call.

Patter begins with father-poet as archetypical player in his own father-son drama, but soon explores other roles: father as a racial being in a racist world, father sidelined by miscarriage, father as bodily accessory to IVF; father as gifter of words and meanings that will be joyfully subverted by children. Kearney increases the range of “father-poet,” and also pushes the boundaries of poetry by merging the visual, musical, political, and personal. Kearney’s ability to accrue meaning through repetition, font-play, and word-collisions, as well as his musical lines packed at Shakespearian density, create a heady, delightful, devastating, and dizzying collection. Patter’s arrival in 2014 laid the groundwork for father-poets to speak not only of the father-son struggle or of concerns about their children as beings vulnerable to a cruel world, but to explore the bedroom, the body, and the precarity of standing by while another’s body makes a baby. 

_____

Oliver de la Paz’s The Boy in the Labyrinth explores life with older children, specifically ones on the autism spectrum. While Burt describes the father as initially an outsider seeking connection, de la Paz complicates this idea by seeking connection across a gulf created not by the fact he did not give birth or nurse, but by the fact that his brain and his children’s brains are differently wired. 

The collection is organized into the sections of a Greek ode, including “Strophe,” “Antistrophe,” and “Epode.” Within these sections are a few distinct styles of poems: variations on the “Autism Screening Questionnaire,” “Story Problem” poems, and “Labyrinth” poems. The book begins with a first-person essay-poem in sections, “Twenty-Eight Tiny Failures and One Labyrinth.” In it, de la Paz names himself, his wife, and his children as the “characters.” In plain prose, he explains the project:

Two of my sons are on the autism spectrum. This pervades my daily life.
We are supposed to “write what you know,” and what I know and have
known my ten years of fatherhood is that writing what I know is hard.

The essay opens the metaphor of the labyrinth, which will carry throughout the book. De la Paz then categorizes as “labyrinthian” both the parental experience of navigating autism questionnaires and the “human interactions. . . . Sarcasm. Subtlety. All the coded nods and microgestures of day-to-day interaction” that his sons navigate. 

As a parent stressed about my own children’s challenges, I appreciated the unvarnished heartache of this essay. De la Paz declares, “our sons may not be able to care for themselves when we are gone. Here’s another fact: that understanding keeps me awake at night.” But as a poet, I was initially baffled by the frankness of this essay. Almost every collection I’ve read in the past five years opens with a bang, a poem that demonstrates the poet’s chops, proving skill so that they can take aesthetic risks further on in the book. Why does de la Paz open with the most explanatory, least obviously “poetic” of his poems? Why gives us a map prior to entry? 

The first idea that occurred to me is that in his fifth full-length collection, de la Paz has little to prove as a poet. Readers know his skill. But another answer appeared in the piece itself: 

Since 2013 I have been writing a sequence of poems loosely based around Theseus and the Minotaur myth. I do not name the wanderer of the maze. The wanderer of the maze is simply “the boy.”

I realized that I had been writing about my sons for several years in the form of this allegory. 

This is unclear to most readers.

Certainly, one reason to use allegory, especially one based on a well-known Greek myth, is that it opens up multiple interpretations. However, not only have others misinterpreted these poems; even as the author, de la Paz did not know what they were about. Now he has determined there should be no fumbling about for answers. 

The final answer comes in the labyrinth poems themselves. Each one is seven to ten pages long, and each of those pages features a dense prose poem that follows the journey of “the boy.” Though they average around eight lines of prose and follow some conventions of fiction—setting, plot, character—their scenes are not easily absorbed. One begins: 

The boy feels hemmed in. He is a chrysanthemum with its stem cross-stitched into the design of the curtain’s fringe. The body, pressed against the dark, thus fulfills its gloss. A body, thus, carries with it what fades. […] The boy in the labyrinth feels each presence equally except the beast’s. The honey-sweet ooze of the beast’s vowels, fierce in the dignity of the larynx’s brass.

The internal rhymes of “hemmed” “chrysanthemum,” and “fringe” in the first two sentences are typical of the music that makes the text pleasurable even when obscure. Like the other labyrinth poems, this one positions and observes the boy in the dark, examining his senses, his feelings. Also, like other labyrinth poems, this one turns from the boy to the boy’s relationship with the minotaur, whom the boy cannot sense, despite the sounding of its voice—vowels and brass. These miniature scenes, each a tiny world, accumulate throughout the book, such that it is possible to feel lost in the labyrinth they create. 

At times the settings of labyrinth poems appear like Escher sketches—“windows open to other windows”—or like a marriage of pointillism and cubism—“All outlines of the wall edges are soft, bitten by water. Light cuts the boy’s body into tiny seams.” The slow-moving plots retain tension, because a vulnerable figure is trapped in a dark maze with a “beast.” Are the two slinking toward an inevitable confrontation? Because de la Paz draws from a known story, readers might trust that the boy, a figure for Theseus, will prevail. Certainly, de la Paz is less interested in plot than the relationship of one unknown—the boy—to another unknown—the beast. Further, the characters—the boy, the minotaur, a shadow of another boy—refuse stable identities. At times, “the boy” is clearly a figure for a son, but at other times, “the boy” is de la Paz himself, trying to find his way through this maze of parenting. “The minotaur” can be read at times as the father, at times as autism, at times as all the challenges that must be confronted by the autistic child and his parent. Perhaps this is why de la Paz wants us to know early on that he is writing “about his sons.” The declaration still allows for possibilities within a certain set of conventions.

The chorus speaks in unanswerable word problems, such as the analogy-based “Chorus: Monster Is to Damned as Lariat Is to ______.” Additionally, the collection features several poems titled “A Story Problem” that call for mathematical thinking. These poems often introduce units of measure that need conversion, but the scene shifts before conversion can occur. For example: 

A cart carrying a metric ton of apples leaves the city at four meters per second. Another cart leaves the city carrying a boy, in love with an idea. Consider the swirl of laughter and personal tragedy at six meters per second. Say the idea does not love him back. Say he will lose his life in a maze of regrets. 

Because these poems set up in the familiar language of the arithmetic word problem, they prime readers’ brains to take the constants (metric tons, meters per second) and use them to calculate. In a math book, a typical story problem ends with one or two questions, the problems to be solved. This particular poem contains seven questions, all unanswerable. The final three read: “what can be said about the horses who will never taste their burden? Where will [the boy’s] cart pass the adenoidal fruits along the road? Where will he know the plurality of his blood?” These poems contain images and characters—“the boy,” “the maze”—that also exist in the labyrinth poems, but while we are helpless spectators in the labyrinth scenes, these pieces seem to offer agency. They invite the reader into the scene with the interrogatives, making it seem like we might find a solution, only to thwart that thought. While the labyrinth poems suggest the unknowability of a child’s interior, these pieces felt very familiar to me; they mirror the slipperiness of parenting. Just when I think I understand the constants and the problem, the problem shifts. 

The book’s most powerful recurrences are the “Autism Screening Questionnaire” poems, perhaps because the “Questionnaire” plants them firmly in a familiar world, one rife with visits to doctors and therapists. However, the poems quickly take a half-step outside of the literal. Their Q and A reads like koans, meant to slap you into enlightenment. Each section starts with a numbered question from the form and follows with the poet-father’s answer. 

2. Does your child not seem to listen when spoken to directly? 

We call it dappled thoughts. He is constantly dappled—
here and not here. He is a thrush hidden in the sage. 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

11. Does he hate crowds? Does he have difficulties in
restaurants and super-markets? 

Every day he’s praying through the meanwhiles.
The sequences of. Not just aflutter, but alone
he sits on the periphery. Ears beside his little body.

Again, de la Paz uses delicate, breathtaking music. Breaks between question and answer, answer and subsequent question, allow the images space to unfold in the reader’s mind. Readers can see and begin to understand the real-life child with autism, whose experience is rendered delicately through de la Paz’s metaphors, like the “thrush hidden in the sage.” But what affected me powerfully is the way that in these poems, readers can feel the poet-father reaching toward that child. The father uses the language he knows—poetry—to bridge the gap between his son’s “dappled” experience and the clinical language of the form, to explain the child more accurately. 

A final thought on that opening poem, “Twenty-Eight Tiny Failures and One Labyrinth”: de la Paz uses the piece to apologize directly to his sons. “I apologize for writing about you, L. I apologize for writing about you, N.” The ethical consideration of when, how, or why it is appropriate to write about one’s children is one I’ve heard discussed on podcasts and in essays, but rarely seen directly in a poem. De la Paz writes, “I don’t want to be the person who fixes this version of my sons to the page.” However, by couching the book primarily in allegory, he mostly avoids imaginable scenes that fix his boys in the world. Rather, what gets fixed in my mind is a father’s act of radical empathy, a willingness to struggle through and even live in a maze-like world filled with darkness and unknowns in order to reach his children.

_____

The poem “Free” finds Craig Morgan Teicher in The Trembling Answers “free as long as I have / this cigar clenched between / my teeth, sitting out front, / the baby monitor bringing // the sounds of heartbeat / and breath as far as the / tether will stretch.” The plain spoken, lightly musical lines—“breath / tether / stretch”—cast Teicher as both father and mother. He sits apart from the child, chomping a cigar. The cigar evokes “liberation”—the man celebrating at the bar while his wife gives birth, the man at poker night, the man with enough leisure and means to smoke something expensive. But like an umbilical cord, the baby monitor keeps him tethered. As he asserts, he is “free / to think what I’d like,” but his insistence on freedom becomes more and more hollow as he describes a cat running by (truly free) and his own disheveled condition, which indicates his concerns and energy are not self-directed: “I’ve not showered in // days; my hair is waxy.” Any new mother can attest to the difficulty in taking a shower or engaging in any self-care; Teicher’s tone on this matter turns not self-pitying but instead ironically triumphant: “I’m free / to stink of tobacco and sweat,” and then it becomes almost comic as the father asserts his (lack of) freedom: “Do you hear me? I’m outside and / nothing will ever make me go in!” He dreams of freedom in a way that shows he does not have it. Other father-poets do not seem to consider freedom, showing it is a privilege they can leave unconsidered. Both assertive and childish (“you can’t make me!”), Teicher’s words are betrayed by his circumstances: he is free to go to the boundary of the baby monitor’s signal.

Teicher’s collection shows a father whose feelings echo the deep conflicts—difficulty, ambivalence, and joy—in many books of motherhood poetry. In “Nest,” he meditates on both of his children, concluding “You love your children / as much as anything / you were unprepared for: / fiercely, with fear, // with all the fucking hatred it takes.” Occurring nearly halfway through the collection, the shock of Teicher’s “fucking hatred” is tempered by the immense love he has previously demonstrated, such as in “Tracheotomy,” a poem in which he physically cares for his son, Cal, in which

love is the things I do over

and over again—cleaning excess
secretions from my son’s 
lungs with a ten-inch catheter, 

pouring liquid food down the tube
to his guts

The poem turns from engagement with bodily fluids to Teicher holding his son’s hand and laughing with him, all acts he is “good” at. Though Teicher acknowledges “we have // suffered, and are ever suffering,” the poem concludes, “it is not now of sadness / or pity I sing.” Though “Free” and “Nest” indulge in moments of self-pity and ferocity, they are coupled with the devotion demonstrated in the daily acts. Through writing of caretaking, Teicher inverts the trajectory laid out by Stephanie Burt. Here is a father starting in closeness and seeking a few moments of escape; here is a father steeped in the round-the-clock immediacy of parenting, not pontificating from the fringes. 

The Trembling Answers uses accessible syntax and diction, which allows Teicher to grow philosophical without seeming pedantic. Teicher writes in lightly musical sentences, and his lines usually form regular stanzas. Teicher, a prolific reviewer, creates a nonce form—the book review as poem—in “Book Review: The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford.” Certainly, as a reviewer Teicher comes into contact with voices of many contemporary poets, but he seems securely grounded in the influence of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, among other twentieth-century heavyweights, influences he names as if they are interlocutors. His version of “In the Waiting Room,” a blatant homage to Bishop, even declares “You are an / Elizabeth!” in a loving parody of Bishop’s moment of self-recognition. 

Lowell’s melancholy also weaves through this collection, and poems like “Why Poetry: a Partial Autobiography” call to mind Lowell’s line from “Skunk Hour”—“my mind’s not right.” Teicher declares the self as the locus of terror: “I was always afraid of myself, // my mind, quite clearly a dangerous place” and connects this to life as a poet, for in poetry “one’s latent / monstrousness can seep // like moisture into good wood / for decades, a lifetime. / My monstrousness is rotting harmlessly now / in my poetry.” Poetry becomes the safe place to express and contain what cannot be expressed otherwise, which in the context of fatherhood, could be feelings of being trapped, resentful, and full of “fucking hatred.” In this Teicher echoes Kearney’s tour of bad dads, and de la Paz’s rendering of the self as the minotaur, encountering the helpless child in the labyrinth. 

The “trembling” in the collection’s title evokes a complex bundle of fear, tenderness, and rage that makes this collection so compelling. Every parent’s deepest, inexpressible fear is a child’s death, and because of his son’s condition, Teicher must be frank about it. “Video Baby Monitor” reveals that the baby monitor is in use for Cal at age seven, as he requires constant surveillance. “A watched / pot never boils, so perhaps // a son on a screen never / dies.” Teicher articulates the desire for control, the wish that if he just watches intently enough, no harm will come to his child. “Self-Portrait Beside Myself” opens, “We’ve been lucky—March is over / and my son is still alive. My daughter / is about to crawl.” Thoughts of my children’s mortality are nearly unbearable, so as a reader there is something both terrible and refreshing about accompanying another’s exploration of this territory. Still, as much as Teicher speaks of darkness, he also makes space for joy, concluding the book with “Another Poem on My Daughter’s Birthday,” in which he acknowledges, “I don’t know // how not to write darkly and sad,” only to turn to his daughter, who

                grows
like joy spreading from the syllables 

of songs. She reminds me of now
and now and now. 
                I must learn
to have been so lucky.

Life with children and their needs keeps one in the present. Teicher alludes to this in “now and now and now.” He then merges the future (“I must learn”) and the past (“to have been”), suggesting that acknowledging the gift of parenting, its endless present, is a practice one must learn. Further, learning it will cast the past in a new light, the realization that one has been “so lucky.” 

I have stated elsewhere that “sentiment” was a dirty word in my MFA classes, and as a poet I took pride in my unsentimentality. Only when I became a mother and heard the frequent critique of motherhood poems as “sentimental” did I begin to question the misogyny lurking beneath it. By declaring “sentiment” the enemy of “quality,” those who made the rules cordoned off a whole field of human emotion more strongly associated with women. “Sentimental” is thus doubly damning to the male poet in a misogynistic world—he’s not only a bad poet; he’s feminine!  

Critic Paul Batchelor uses “sentiment” as a strike against Scottish poet Niall Campbell’s second full-length collection, Noctuary. Batchelor cites as proof Campbell’s frequent use of the word “heart,” which appears almost twenty times in fewer than sixty pages of poetry. Perhaps this is too much repetition of a single symbol, but rather than equating this population of hearts to a descent into sentimental ooze, I would liken it to the use of the word “you” in many books of poems. Campbell is interrogating the heart, inspecting it for changes since the birth of his son. He is indeed full of sentiment, as one of the topics of his book is his ability to feel. Campbell uses his role as nighttime caretaker of his infant to shape an argument on masculinity and the boundaries of emotional capacity. He arrives, again and again, at gratitude.

A noctuary is a night diary, and as others have noted, many of Campbell’s poems feel like they are written in a state somewhere between sleep and waking, where time, space, and mind become porous. Often, the speaker is up at night with his child, either roused from sleep or prevented from entering it. In “First Nights,” the surreality of sleep deprivation takes the form of a disembodied external speaker, addressing the poet-father. The voice inquires, “So go on, tell me what you hope for, young father.” The poet-father answers, “let the new change be unlike the old change.” Change has already occurred with the birth of the child, and, still unaware of its full contours, he asks that it be different from previous changes in his life. Campbell writes with a disarming clarity and simplicity. He is plainspoken and subtly musical. His lines feel measured, weighed, and the symmetry of his stanza patterns, often tercets or quatrains, allow the reader to see and anticipate order. It is against this backdrop of order and tradition that Campbell makes room for quiet surprise. 

Campbell introduces the idea of subverted roles in “The Water Carrier,” an updated version of the parable of the cracked pot. In the parable, the cracked pot leaks water on its trip from the river to the dwelling, allowing flowers to grow along the road. In Campbell’s poem, it is not the pot he wishes had a defect, but himself. He wishes to be “the worst of this profession,” shunning strength and sure-footedness in favor of “the kiss / on the shoulder of the first spilt drop.” Though in original versions of the parable the water bearer appears in both male and female forms, in much of today’s world, water is carried by girls and women. Thus, Campbell’s reconfiguring aligns him with the feminine as well as with the pleasure of inefficiency. 

Much of Noctuary reconsiders masculine roles—the poacher, the axeman, the night watchman. Campbell seeks to reinvent these roles in the light of fatherhood. In “Midnight,” Campbell contemplates his heart that once knew “the life of a young axeman in the forest, / whistler, tree-feller, swinging with the wind.” In addition to the masculine power of “axeman,” the heart once knew freedom, exemplified by “swinging with the wind.” But Campbell refers to that heart as “poor heart.” The axeman’s heart, Campbell concludes, hears “no cry in the night.” As a parent, I long for the time of hearing “no cry in the night,” but Campbell feels differently. He says the axeman’s heart has not “grown heavy, heavier.” Campbell sets us up for a contrast between axeman and father. The axeman has freedom and a light heart. But though the father’s heart is heavy—surprise!—it is “heavier, with opening,” surely the preferable state of being. He makes a similar move in “The Night Watch,” in which, roused from sleep by a crying child (“calling for me to come out, into / the buckthorn field of being awake—”), he asks the child what it was “that couldn’t wait until the morning?” The question is rhetorical, and Campbell entertains possibilities, among them: “was it the quiet—because I owned it, / once—but found I wanted more.” Again, he is willing to forgo the freedom and quiet of his old life for the weight and interruption of the new.

Campbell invents one poetic form based in parenthood in the poem “Clapping Game.” An epigraph notes that “[*] represents a clap of the hands.” This merger of the made-for-children-chant and the poem feels like a natural, productive fit, especially in a poem about writing poetry. Comprising four stanzas, the first three dotted with “[*],” the piece begins:

The blue [*] night was on the [*][*] hill
and my [*] mind was working strangely
after a [*][*] day of [*][*] games

The symbol of bracketed asterisks can be read as charming (clap! clap!) or profane (F***!). Claps not only give this piece a strong rhythm, but we get to pick our own version of that day’s parenting: “after a [delight-filled] day of [fun and] games” and “after a [fucking] day of [boring] games” are equal possibilities. Campbell leads us toward the positive in the last line of clapping, seeing in the moon a “stamp of something like [*][*] happiness.” This marks the transition into the clap-free section of the poem, the last stanza where:

I was free to play that different game;
up late with the world, my small life leapt,
I rolled the dice across the writing desk.

Like most parents, Campbell’s work as a writer comes second, or even third, after parenting and his day job. While he shows a desire to write—it is both “play” and “life”—he does not show resentment about having to wait until moonrise. 

These are poems of cleanliness and contemplation. There is no blood or poop or vomit; there is no hormonal rage. Still, Campbell is exhausted, he does get interrupted, and he does struggle with a work-life balance. Despite these struggles, there is no mourning for what once was. Rather, Campbell contemplates the life he had—including its traditionally masculine shape—and then with gratitude, he acknowledges his new life is both harder and better.

Campbell, Teicher, de la Paz, and Kearney are not the first men to parent intensively, nor are they the first men to write fatherhood poems. However, even in the second decade of the twenty-first century, collections from a father’s point of view feel rare enough to make these books remarkable not just for their craft, but for their content. Each poet uses fatherhood as a lens through which to explore the limits of the human ability to protect, connect with, and care for a vulnerable other, an enterprise more human than masculine, and one from which we can all learn. By providing a wide spectrum of roles that father-poets can play, attitudes they can have, forms in which they can write, these four provide models for future father-poets while also expanding narrow notions of fatherhood and masculinity. These books make me hopeful that soon there will be so many daddies on the playground every day of the week that no one will question why they are there.

_____

*An essay-review of

Patter. By Douglas Kearney. Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2014. 96 pp. $17.95.

The Boy in the Labyrinth. By Oliver de la Paz. Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 2019. 164 pp. $19.95.

The Trembling Answers. By Craig Morgan Teicher. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions Ltd., 2017. 88 pp. $16.00.

Noctuary. By Niall Campbell. Hexham, UK: Bloodaxe Books, 2019. 64 pp. $16.95 (U.S.).

 

Emily Pérez is the co-editor of the forthcoming anthology The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood (University of Georgia Press, 2021) and the author of the poetry collections Made and Unmade (Madhouse Press, 2019), House of Sugar, House of Stone (Center for Literary Publishing, 2016), and Backyard Migration Route (Finishing Line Press, 2011). A CantoMundo fellow and Ledbury Emerging Critic, her poems and reviews have appeared in journals including Cosmonauts Avenue, Copper Nickel, Poetry, Diode, RHINO, and The Guardian. She teaches English and gender studies in Denver, where she lives with her family.