25th Trillium Award

Writing Fatherhood, Part Four

 
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rob mclennan and Baby Rose

by rob mclennan

Read Writing Fatherhood, Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

The Key of N

Dividends, bewildered powers. Stretch-marks, nursery. Secondary heart-beat. Listen: blood pools, pulse, the powdered structure. Spilling forth. Grammatic, slowness. Slowness of the ground, the passage, seasons? fall. Belonging to. Fragments, disappear. The sun sometimes divides, a music. Pressure points. Take pleasure in, a run-on, run-off. Sentenced. Is the theme of voice. Montage, a vessel. What, you hold her. Listen, pulse. Attention, all. As if to recognize.

Over the first two weeks of November, I composed poems for my second daughter, uncertain if she was days or even hours from emerging. Perhaps the waiting, and the unknown, is the worst part of all. Apart from the pain, Christine reminds. Over the years, one of my favourite book dedications has been from George Bowering?s In The Flesh (McClelland & Stewart, 1974) that reads: ?dedicated to Thea Claire, who arrived just then.? The photo on the back cover includes author and newborn daughter, as Thea chews contentedly on her fist.

Just how do male writers write about their offspring? The male perspective as parent and caregiver couldn?t be more interwoven with confusion, contradiction and mixed signals. Still, the deeper I delve into our bookshelves, the more examples I discover. Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley, father of two now-grown daughters, includes the poem ?megan? in the ?New Poems? section of his sunfall: new and selected poems 1980-1996 (Anansi, 1996). The piece gives the impression of a newborn still in the hospital under a health scare, as he writes ?the moon / is eating you yellow as the jaundice / you were born into Christmas,? and further lines such as ?lie now inside your fear,? and ?we both know there is nothing i can do / cannot scare off the wolves this night / which always before you have turned / to anger now you lie quiet / at the ends of my frightened love[.]? Cooley writes:

you on the end of our lives
something is in & they will enter
the thin membrane of your breath
your life that lifts from our throats
wanting you to float there forever
moving as moons should move
    bright & perennial as the night which turns
                  into a second fullness
        stuck on the sky?s high ceiling
                        our silent calling

In a recent email, Hamilton writer Gary Barwin writes ?I think modern fatherhood and the complexity of the male role (both as father and as individual) is fraught with ambiguity, mixed-signals, and confusion in our culture. Any help/discussion from poetry (and essays about poetry) is really helpful.? Perhaps it is only here, through the blend of writing and experience, that full clarity can even begin to emerge. In a review of Barwin?s poetry collection The Porcupinity of the Stars (Coach House Books, 2010) in Arc Poetry Magazine, Darren Bifford writes: ?It is hard to be known completely by another, but a poem like this is perhaps the greatest testament to fatherhood I have yet read — with none of the usual slogging through fear and anxiety that parents inevitably face, and which poets make much of.? Honestly, what is wrong with fear and anxiety? It certainly isn?t the exclusive parenting-poem scope of the male writer. Although I admit my fear on our forthcoming child is considerably reduced, in comparison, given my experiences with my daughter Kate. The review opens:

There are a lot of poems written for and about children because poets have children, and as a consequence the children are condemned to be written about and for. But the preponderance of poems written by Canadians in this vein are narratives and lyrics, straightforward pieces about love and wonder and milestones. Some of this output is even beautiful. There isn?t very much poetry in this country espousing the surreal method. In The Porcupinity of the Stars, a book dedicated to his family, Gary Barwin has written poems that refresh the approach to poetry about children. Instead of conventional scenes of domesticity, of the at-a-remove poet reflecting on children taking first steps or setting off for the first day of school, Barwin?s children are depicted mid-play, and the writing itself is playful in its images and construction. Barwin refused to tell a story or anecdote straight, preferring to depict play as a process. And this is perhaps the greatest trick of all for the poet writing about children: not just to impart the child?s identity or the components of his/her world, but to convey the magic of childhood itself.

There is something of what he writes about Barwin?s work that is akin, again, to the domestic of Robert Creeley or even William Carlos Williams: acknowledging the everyday as extraordinary in its own way and worthy of attention within writing, as opposed to being entirely separate from writing. Why should writing ever be separate from the world? Barwin?s three children appear as a thread running through the entirety of The Porcupinity of the Stars; the poems aren?t necessarily about them, but could not exist without their presence. As he writes to end the poem ?We Are Family?: ?a baby in a bed full of babies / and the earth full of babies[.]? Barwin writes of activities with his children, moments that include them as main and even peripheral characters, but entirely present in nearly every poem; they are part of the world in which he writes. American poet Edward Dorn composed a variation on the same, writing his daughter within the scope of something larger, more abstract and entirely other, and yet, impossible without his daughter, and even written directly to her. From Way More West: New and Selected Poems (Penguin, 2007) comes ?The Problem of the Poem for My Daughter, / Left Unsolved,? that originally appeared in his Geography (Fulcrum Press, 1965). Writing around the scope of his teenaged daughter, the lengthy poem includes: ?the girl my daughter, 14 today / and such eyes, all interior, a proud thing[.]? Back in Canada, Vancouver poet and father of two, Mark Cochrane, wrote his children through the scope of his domestic collapse and deep guilt in the poem ?Mad Dad? from Change Room (Talonbooks, 2000), opening:

Coffee toxic, with spinal
pinch & neuro-
static down thru
hamstring & groin—I give

my kids dinner, nuggets & tots, snappish &
short, then
plug them in, Pinocchio, all-time
worst parenting, I have been months

loving & in love with
a woman not their mother &
nobody knows yet, [?]

In Finding Ft. George (Caitlin Press, 2007), Prince George poet, editor and father of four, Rob Budde, includes three numbered poems on what might be required to come next, each titled ?the vasectomy.? Might this be the only parenting territory from which the male voice might hold the higher authority? In the first of them, writing: ?the split between subject / and object,             a releasing / of chance and the unplanned[.]? A further element of parenting, apparent for both genders, is that moment or series of moments of distance, as the parent-child relationship shifts due to every child?s evolution into a pure individual. Kingston writer Steven Heighton writes of that in the poem ?Herself, Revised,? from his Patient Frame (Anansi, 2010). He writes of moving from reading nightly bedtime stories to his daughter requiring her own spaces, ending the poem with:

              Some nights later, suddenly,
writing cheques or checking email, he might
notice and wonder at the change. In a sense
such minor passings pre-enact his own.
For a moment he might lay down his pen,
forget the figures, peer over the roofline
and find she was right?Orion, rising,
is more blueprint of butterfly, or bird,
than hunter. How does it enter, through what rift
or flaw? Maybe it doesn?t enter at all.
It was there in every sentence: the end.

What are the perspectives that fatherhood can bring that aren?t already inherently there from the perspective of motherhood? Perhaps little, perhaps nothing at all; perhaps something that I can?t quite articulate or shape. Perhaps something that requires far more study than I have space and time for here. There are the small moments, connections and distances inherent in every fragment of the complex relationships we have with our children, no matter what occurs. These are certainly felt, and reflected in numerous poems I?ve composed for and around my daughter Kate, who nears 23 years on the planet. As I work to complete the last sections of this essay, Calgary poet Jason Christie sends a new poem over email, ?the only fatherhood poem I've been willing to share so far,? on the recent birth of their Emmett. He generously allows me to share it, here:

A Life

Seconds
Minutes
Hours
Days
Weeks
Months
Years
Decades
Years
Months
Weeks
Days
Hours
Minutes
Seconds

There have been the poems I?ve composed over the years for Kate, and more recent pieces, composed as we awaited our Rose, who finally emerged on November 20, 2013 at 8:54am, after nearly thirty-seven hours of induced labour. Over the stretch of weeks and months prior, I composed a suite of prose poems under the umbrella-title ?Glossary of Musical Terms,? each surrounding some part of the experience so far. My almost-daughter, writing to the sound of her particular music:

The Key of Rose

Anecdote, a token wobble. Shipwreck, drum. Pressed down, the little finger. Heart, in fact a garment. Commodities of wind, what spectral flash. Concerto. White face, powdered. Bleed, our poisoned arrow. Centred, like a bowl. Map leads to a nexus.

The entire experience of pregnancy and birth brings me closer to my lovely wife, Christine, and to our newborn girl. Interestingly enough, I find the experience of my second daughter?s birth also reacquaints me with the experience of my first child?s birth, more than two decades ago. The differences and similarities are striking, and deeply felt. ?I Never Felt Such Love,? as Bowering wrote, years ago, to introduce both the preface for his collection of poetry and their newborn Thea. Finally, ?in the flesh.? As most of us already know, love can reduce or multiply, but never divides. What I felt and feel for my first child has increased by two or even more, encompassing both girls, equally. The feeling simply expands, and overwhelms a bit. To logically know a thing is so much smaller than the experience of finally feeling it.

Now that we?re finally, safely home, I begin to sketch out something new, an assortment of fragments tentatively titled ?The Rose Concordance? (with apologies to poet Angela Carr, from whom I borrow the title). I work to shape her, somehow. I work to articulate this new experience, and all that might come with. I steal moments between feedings, baby Rose asleep wrapped up against me in the snuggly, as Christine steals her own opportunities to nap downstairs. As I tap away at laptop, seated at my little desk, the poem is barely there, opening what could be weeks or even months of scattered lines, unsorted:

Wednesday?s child is full of whoa


Sleep, a bitter fiction


Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include the forthcoming notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the poetry collection Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at http://robmclennan.blogspot.ca/.

2 comments

This article gives the light in which we can observe the reality. This is very nice one and gives in depth information.

Nicely rendered .. Sleep and time are the commodities I've noticed gone scarce of late. Whisked away by tiny cyclones of love .. M. Lithgow

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