PATTER. By Douglas Kearney. (Red Hen Press, 2014)
In its consideration of fatherhood, Patter also provides an incisive exploration of performance. At its core, the book raises questions about how one plays the role of “paterfamilias” from the offspring’s conception through birth and childhood. What sort of patter is expected in each case, and how might we disrupt the ready narratives constructed for us? In poems that revise old forms and invent new ones, Kearney works through the fears attending fatherhood, the pain of miscarriage, the difficulties of fertility treatment, and the persistent stereotypes that constrain black childhood, refusing to tie the bundle up with a tidy bow. In considering the lineage from which he might draw, Kearney casts a chorus of failed fathers, from Titus Andronicus to Jim Trueblood, writing out of their
experience in order, perhaps, to purge these bad daddies from the speaker’s imagination, give them their “father of the year” awards, and send them on their way. In playing out these scenarios, the book reminds us of all we lack: we have models for “good TV,” but what model do we have for the good father? Kearney draws attention to our failures of both language and imagination. We (men especially) have no script with which to talk to one another about miscarriage, and nothing we say can mitigate the pain of losing a child—all attempts, like the wrenching series of poems titled “The Miscarriage,” must fail. Each poem becomes a performance, like the “Minstrel Show,” a vividly self-implicating critique of the poet’s attempts to make art from pain as well as of the audience that looks on. These poems continually put the reader in the position of uncomfortable spectator, asking us to question our desire to see “sheets to glory pinked!” Kearney’s writing consistently uses the space of the page to great effect, and here the visual experimentation (including diagram poems, a “Sunday Funny,” and a word search, among others) continues to press against easy divisions between form and content. Poems to be both seen and read, they perform in a way that implicates the reader, as in the “Word Hunt” that juxtaposes a list of positive attributes (“INTELLIGENT,” “CLEAN,” “CHERISHED”) with a letter field in which none of these could possibly appear—the titular hunter will only find a racial slur (“neg,” “nee,” “ger,” etc. ).
The poem appears in the third section, “It Is Designed For Children,” which explores the messages black children receive about their racial identity: the ways American culture dehumanizes and imperils them. Its sequence of contemporary fairy tales reimagining Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, the Gingerbread Man, Goldilocks, and Tarbaby makes these fables resonate with the real dangers facing black children, issuing warnings we can only hope we’ll one day no longer need. A hood offers Red no protection in a world where “in felt cap, the wolf, // or the hunter wear the pelt. If felled would / no one but the mother hear the child.” Patter’s pointed stage banter fills a much-needed space of silence. It works toward finding language for the inexpressible.