25th Trillium Award

Writing Fatherhood, Part Two

 
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father child

by rob mclennan

Read "Writing Fatherhood, Part One."

At a reading he did recently at the Ottawa Public Library, Monty Reid introduced a new poem he?d been working on for some time, originally composed to acknowledge the birth of his daughter. Poems by male writers on their young children, he suggested, tend to be more sentimental than those by their female counterparts. Women who write on their children are often less sentimental and more gritty, perhaps for the sake of the experience being far more physical. Reid's solution was to write about a retained placenta and only obliquely about his daughter. The resulting poem, ?Meditatio Placentae,? is scheduled to appear in The Malahat Review, most likely in the upcoming ?Winter 2013? issue. Digging through books, I?m able to reacquaint myself with Dale Martin Smith?s Black Stone (Effing Press, 2007). As he writes to open the collection, ?I began Black Stone on the first day of the Christian observance of Lent. My second son, Waylon, was born during that period, and I wanted to explore the narrative of days around his birth.? Predominantly structured through the single-paragraph prose-poem, the book begins:

HERE SWIMS THE EARTH-BOUND babe, moving day and night. Speak through a thin shell of skin, fluid deep on the other side. I kiss Hoa?s broad belly. Trace her linea negra, pubis to breast-bone. Outside a perfect crescent moon points both ends up to make a horn. ?Mama Luna Moona,? I said to my son, rhyming with the ?Foona Lagoona Baboona? in Dr. Seuss. The February night?s cold, black but for that moonlight and a few silver constellations bright enough to break the city?s orange aura. There?s a dead chinaberry downed by last week?s storm. It fell into the giant cane, golden shells clumped about utility wires and where a cardinal this morning sang. Her belly is warm, exposed to a steaming cup of tea. She sips it and shows me where the baby kicks. Like burbling, gurgling fluid black as stone. I touch the movement where my hand nearly cups a little butt. Head down. Open the gates. Let in the light. And my son holding a plastic toy. The air outside?s quite still. Now the sound of traffic enters the room.

The work is fantastic, but I wonder if Reid might actually be right. I reread Phil Hall, moving through The Little Seamstress (Pedlar Press, 2010): ?She could be my daughter — 18 next month — the creature I love more / than?? Compare that thread to my own ?poem listening to my daughter at a / distance of some thousand miles? from my wild horses (University of Alberta Press, 2010), that ends: ?in your eighteenth year, a measure / , a bootstrap // you would yourself pull // a word from childhood / to measure: bare miles.? We compare and comment on our connections, even as we acknowledge the distances. A bit earlier, from The Ottawa City Project (Chaudiere Books, 2007), I sketched out a poem exactly as the title suggests, awaiting my then-fifteen-year-old daughter on one of our regular Saturdays:

quick ghazal while waiting for kate
in the tim hortons, rideau centre,
february 11, 2006

the sum of the very coffee,
invective cold

the scrape of days take winterlude
from muddy water

to bare bone

how every curse at the bus stop
a silver shadow

a forced migration turns dyspeptic

my mutton heart arrows
a hangover of trees

her william tell overtures

the days of cholera & new york magazine
covers

home a figure for mixed meanings

we wound by how

we name

For years culture has presented the father as being secondary to the mother, which is understandable up to a point, but not to the suggestion of ineptitude, something which has bothered me for entirely too long. American films such as Tom Hanks? Mr. Mom (1983) and Eddie Murphy?s Daddy Day Care (1993) didn?t help the perception of father as a kind of bumbling fool (a shift, I suppose, from an earlier generation?s depiction of father as a distant and absolute authority figure). A flurry of articles recently even acknowledged both the stereotype and the growing shift. As David Beckham watched his youngest daughter during Victoria Beckham?s fashion shows, journalists wrote that David wasn?t (as some had suggested) ?babysitting? his daughter, but actually ?parenting.? Sometimes the words themselves presume a distance that doesn?t exist. In the early 1990s, I ran a home daycare to look after my daughter Kate, taking in two other children for the sake of bringing in some income while socializing my child, as well as being able to directly care for both her and our home while her mother was at work. Given that I was but one of two male members of the three or four hundred strong Ottawa-Carleton Caregivers Association (the other male, oddly enough, lived a block away from us), I understood that the perception of men-as-caregivers was the exception, but wasn?t expecting the occasional family that didn?t want to leave their child with me, simply because I was male.

Over the past year or so, a number of Canadian poets have become first-time fathers, including kevin mcpherson eckhoff, Sean Johnston, Michael Lithgow, Jason Christie and Andy Weaver. What might some of them, if any, write of their children? How might parenting enter into their work? St. Catharines, Ontario, poet and father Adam Dickinson?s new collection, The Polymers (Anansi, 2013), writes out the science of how matter is held together, arguably stretching the book-length metaphor at the core moment of the collection from the arrival of their daughter, Millicent. The poem ?HAIL,? which opens the first section, is a lyric greeting that ends with:

Hello from six-pack rings
and chokeholds,
from breast milk
and cord blood,
from microfibers
rinsed through yoga pants
and polyester fleece,
biomagnifying predators
strafing the treatment plants.
Hello from acrylics
in G.I. Joe.
Hello from washed up
fishnet thigh-highs
and frog suits
and eggs cups
and sperm.
Hello.

It might sound as though I make too much of this, as though suggesting that everyone who writes and has children should be including them in their work, which isn?t my intention at all. I am interested in those who do, and the differences inherent in the depictions. When motherhood becomes such an integral part of the writing and lives of writers such as Elizabeth Smart, Rachel Zucker and Margaret Christakos, I wonder: where are their male counterparts, and do they exist? Or am I simply asking the wrong questions? Perhaps it?s as simple as the differences between gender expectation and experience, something that can?t help but be obvious. Perhaps the differences can?t be bridged until more males experience what Margaret Christakos discusses in the interview Heather Milne conducted with her for the anthology Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women?s Poetry and Poetics (Coach House Books, 2009):

Time is such a huge thing raising children. It?s the medium that I had no concept of before I had kids — I had notions of it but no real experience of it. Mothering these three kids and sustaining myself as a writer that was like the grand experiment. This thing that is a sort of mainstream, traditional female experience for me was one that most challenged my identity to the core. It?s been very hard, and it made me think, you know, this is really hard for every mother. We persist through extreme despair and exhaustion. It?s just really an extreme experience and the places of comfort, the places where you?ve achieved a certain balance, are actually vital to surviving.


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 (with Jennifer Mulligan), 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/.

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