Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Fatherhood of the Year: Inciting Moments of New Life-dom in Douglas Kearney’s Patter

by Anthony Fife

Douglas Kearney’s Patter (2014) is a book-length attempt to provide order, both physical and psychological, to one aspect of life that is so complex, so fraught with misgivings and perceived wrong turns that it defies easy categorization.  The specifics of parenthood, and fatherhood in particular, are run through the ringer as Kearney all but abandons traditional verse in his attempt to explain the transition from sole personhood to suddenly being responsible for another human being.  It’s a messy journey and, though the poems themselves are assuredly not messy, they are sometimes frantic, casting their net wide, and are not shy when it comes to defying expectation.

Parenthood is not uncommon; most people who live long enough are initiates of the club.  But whereas the numbers are quite high, the facts of the matter of parenthood are still so weighty that each new member feels the experience as if they are one of but a chosen few.  This culmination of weight and singularity is the proving ground upon which Patter stakes its claim.  By illuminating each emotion in the journey, the seemingly insignificant to the profound, Kearney’s book serves as a roadmap, not just thematically but also via the actual physical presence of many of the poems themselves, for navigating the scattered, duplicitous, frightened, unresolved and, eventually, highly redeemable humanity of earning the right to bring into being and sustain another’s life.

One poem in particular that embodies all of these characteristics, “‘It’s Okay to Feel Overwhelmed…’—,” provides a not so concise glimpse of all this chaos and successfully attempts to wring reason from it.

The overlapping lines, the stuttering punctuation and the difficult to categorize form are a physio-linguistic attempt to capture the flood of thought and emotion that bombards a new parent when confronted by a baby doing what babies sometimes do best.  The lines wants so desperately to hold together, to calmly take respectable shape, that when failure comes, as it must, what’s left is very human and very frightening.   At the bottom of this bombardment of emotions, frustrations and reasoned failure is, perhaps not surprisingly, fear.
Fear is what’s left when everything else has abandoned you.  When reason fails — when the talking and the feeding and the singing and the holding all produce no results — physical violence is one of the few remaining alternatives.  The idea that all parents are capable of violence, despite the overwhelming love and tenderness one feels toward their child, is an ever present fact.  Most people don’t shake their baby, but almost every parent, at times, desperately wants to.

The themes running through “It’s Okay to Feel Overwhelmed” — of mixed emotions, dichotomies and incongruities that threaten to throw everything off kilter in a big way — show up throughout Patter.  Indeed, feeling too much at once might be the central energy source that shapes the collection.  Kearney draws from this well often, frequently allowing the chaotic physical form to have its say.  The most concise, and repeating, statements of this chaos and the conflicted mind that results are the “Done Red” poems that start four of the book’s five sections. 

In the context of this forty-six poem volume, the reader is usually never further than ten poems away from the previous or the next “Done Red” poem.  Being featured so strongly, it’s easy to assume that Kearney had a higher purpose for the “Done Red” poems, and that they, though few in number, are perhaps somehow more representative of the pure, inarticulate nature of human relations.
Reoccurring so often and so different in their approach from anything else in the volume, the “Done Red” poems are Patter’s heartbeat.  Profound and honest.  A heartbeat, it must be pointed out, that often conflicts with the conscious mind and admits the frailty and fear that secretly but universally defines us.

The “Done Red” poems are the internal-inarticulate, a synthesized burst of a brain pulled in multiple directions.  They aren’t exactly foreign, autonomous agents, however, despite their physical and repetitious oddities.  Dig deep enough into nearly any poem in the collection and, sure enough, a hidden “Done Red” poem is waiting to be unearthed.

Though Patter is very much a journey of the psyche and is centered around the facts and feelings of parenthood, it’s important to realize that the character defined therein are not islands, but players is a far broader world.  Mass media, for example, plays a major role in many of the poems, often helping shape the speaker’s notions of his own experience.  Whether it’s Chris Rock’s advice to fathers—“Keep her off the pole” (“Goooooo or Goooooo or Goooooo” 80)—or Darth Vader’s Father of the Year application (22-23), many of the poems have a humorous, contemporary edge.
One such poem, and arguably the most ambitious poem in the collection, is “In the End, They Were Born on TV,” excerpted here:

i.  good reality TV
a couple wanted to be –to-be and TV wants the couple-to-be
to be on TV.  the people from TV believe we’d be good TV
because we had wanted to be to-be and failed and now might.

to be good at TV make-like TV isn’t.  make-like living in our living room
and the TV crew isn’t there and the boom isn’t there
saving the woman from TV’s voice that won’t be there
saying tell us about the miscarriage.  in the teeming evening
and some dog barking at all we cannot hear.

                        ii.  would you be willing to be on TV?
people in their house on TV are ghosts haunting a house haunting houses.
pregnant women in their houses on TV are haunted houses haunting a house
     haunting houses.
out living room a set set for us ghosts to tell ghost stories on us.

would you be to-be on TV?
to be the we we weren’t to be and the we we’re-to-be to be on TV.
the pregnant woman agrees to being a haunted house
haunting flickering houses.  yes ok yeah yes.

                        vi.  only with some effort
the best ghosts trust they’re not dead.  no
no the best ghosts don’t know how not to be alive.
like being good at TV.

inside the pregnant woman, the –to-be of the family-who-failed-
but-now-might-be-to-be were good TV.
but the we-who-failed butterfingered and stuttered,
held our hands like we just got them.

we’ve been trying so long we said we can’t believe it this is finally happening.

                        ix.   the miscarriage: exposition for reality TV
it helps to be on TV.  we want to be good on TV.  ok yes.
to help we want to be good TV.  yeah yes.
please tell me about the miscarriage.

the woman from TC wants good TV and something specific that gets you right
in the tear to the eye
to milk the pregnant woman’s breasts heavy with—.

good, we talk about the dead one on TV.

it was horrible, the blood was everywhere that morning a dog barks.
one-more-time-from-the-top.  it was horrible, the blood was everywherrr
doggone dog goes on.  on to take three and it was horriBOOM
in the boom goes the barking and bad TV!  bad TV!  we want to help
being good TV please tell me about the miscarriage
one more time it was  

Exploitation, as it were, often requires the complicity of the exploited.  In “In the End, They Were Born on TV,” it’s not difficult to find the parasitic voice; however, it is by no means the poem’s dominant voice.  Regardless, using reality television as a metaphor for the conflicting feelings of desperately wanting open up to the public while simultaneously desiring solitude, Kearney is able to find a lens through which to highlight just how closely tied our best emotions are with those things that can do nothing but tear those emotions asunder.  We seek out what, consciously, we know full well we don’t really want.  We accept, however grudgingly, the elements that will take us where we don’t want to go.
Patter is an attempt to reconcile the internal and the external; an effort to find answers when language and rationality fail, and our own desires become unintelligible, even harmful.  And how, despite the internal tangles, we become what we need to become, and rise despite ourselves, to the occasion.

both images are taken from

An [Email] Interview with Douglas Kearney

Anthony Fife:
   The deep issue first.  Define fatherhood.  How does it differ, aside from the obvious biological differences, from your conception of motherhood?  What, culturally speaking, do we expect of fathers and how does the expectation weigh in on the daily workings of fatherhood?  How has your preconceived conception of fatherhood changed since actually becoming a father?

Douglas Kearney:
   If I’ve learned anything since becoming a father, it’s that trying to come up with general ideas of what fatherhood must be gets in the way of actually raising the kids. So, it would be a kind of backtracking from what I’ve learned for me to speak to general differences. Cultural ideas — which don’t account, necessarily for actual experiences — are pretty much heteronormatively-oriented: mothers are the primary caretakers, fathers are more likely to work outside the home, which, for any number of reasons, frequently makes them the “breadwinners.” Neither myself nor my wife is a stay-at-home parent, though my schedule at CalArts has afforded me the opportunity to spend more time at home, raising my kids, than my wife. But I have had lots of help from family members and friends. I thought I’d spend fatherhood wracked with a battle between my ego, my desires, and the responsibility of child rearing. That happens, sure, but much less than I expected. My older brother reminded me earlier this year that growing up, I didn’t like kids at all. So this has been a good development.

   Please talk about the books physical form — the red ants and the thick, textured paper stock — and how it was decided upon.  How does it reflect the content between the covers?

  Well, I’ve known the red ants would be there in one form or another for a long time. Basically since my second pass at a cover. I’m reluctant to say why they’re there, but what the hell — ants figure a couple times in the book, and I think of them as an intelligence un-self-consciously focused on satisfying an appetite. There was a lot of terrible hunger, a lot of single-mindedness in our journey to becoming parents, and then there’s the single-mindedness of a hungry infant. The heavy stock — well I love how tactile it is. Having kids has brought the vividness of touch back to the fore of my consciousness. Plus, Gary Lemons’s fine collection, Snake, (another Red Hen Press book) also used that kind of stock, and it just seemed iconic. So: yoink!

   Your book is full of poems that, at least as far as form is concerned, probably couldn’t have been written, let along published, 100 years ago.  Whereas the Modern “make it new” mentality allowed for a great deal of experimentation, it also brought about a harkening back to previous artistic traditions, whereas your poems, at least as far as I can tell, aren’t necessarily as reliant on previous traditions as most poetry collections.  Tell me about the variety of shapes your poems assume and how those shapes, including the text-on-text overlapping and various directions and sizes of the print, and how these variations create meaning in a way that might not be available to more traditional forms.

  I’ve talked about my work’s indebtedness to Italian Futurism. While I don’t think I’m as interested in physical velocity as they were, I am interested in how reading can be activated by open field poems, which perhaps slant rhymes with questions of speed, certainly of space. I dunno, I’m conscious of experiments with type in poetry, advertising, comics, magazines — there’s a great book called Imagining Language (eds. Steve McCaffery and Jed Rasula) I got ahold of in grad school at CalArts — there’s stuff going back centuries. I’m putting things together perhaps differently than has been the case before, but I am building on and modifying, fusing and synthesizing things I’ve seen.

AF:   On the other side of the coin, you end the book with a handful of more traditionally formed poems.  Please talk about the reasoning behind this choice and how the departure from formal experimentation interacts with the relative formality found at the end of the book.

  Sequencing the book was tough. I felt that going purely chronologically was kind of slack. At the same time, I became really concerned about the autobiographical quality of the book. Like, I had to hew to that line. But somewhere along the way, during my revisions, I got deeply repelled by the I I I I I I I of the poems. I reworked a number of poems to be less fixed to that I. And that made it so that I could dismiss chronological order. This is, I guess, only grazing your question, though.

I think of sequencing as making a macropoem out of all the shorter ones. Formal play is, at the most basic, a means of creating some immediate destabilization. In my work, in my process, the formal play is, as many more overtly prosodic techniques also are, a reasonable solution to the problem of writing a poem at hand. So those poems use formal play, because in my sense of things, formal play was the best way to accomplish what I imagined or realized were the poem’s aims — I’d have to talk about individual poems to give a less borderline tautological explanation. Yet, I want to emphasize that I said immediate destabilization. Poems that use more conventional visual prosodic strategies are just as capable of ultimately being destabilizing.

The final section of the book begins with, what I consider the most robustly playful of the formal explorations, “Blues Done Red.” This poem is a hell of a speed bump. Then, there’s the syntax and repetitions of “In the End They Were Born on TV” — I didn’t want readers to have to slog their way through this final section. Plus, I think that backloading the formally playful poems might have read as though they were “a next step,” when really, they’re in step with the rest. It’s funny, I’m working on a manuscript now, and my sense of how I must distribute the formally playful poems among the more visually conventional ones is a bit arresting. I don’t think I want them all clustered together in some calligrammatic ghetto hemmed in by so-called “real” poems. I’m also thinking of larger formats for those poems. Brooklyn Rail published two poems from a series of these more visually antic joints, and they were sexy as hell all big like that.

   Please talk about the fable or fairy tale component of Patter.  Along similar lines, you also bring a lot of pop culture references into the fold.  How do fairy tales and the pop references, namely reality television, effect the lens through which the basic story being told is achieved?

  Fairy tales/fables are generally didactic, yes? So once you evoke them, there is the sense that you should learn something. They’re also, as Carl Phillips says, often “designed for children.” So you have to think about what these stories — which exist in a culture — are meant to teach, and to whom. What does that culture want us to know? That colors the lens. The reality tv show makes me think about performance, a subject to which I frequently return. The Miscarriage poems are similarly concerned, but there, the performance seems more interpersonal. You say to family and friends, “we’re fine.” Or, you pretend that there was never a pregnancy. Or you are unwilling to start trying again but you’re aware that some people think you should. Reality tv is this performance that audiences know is not strictly real but is also not strictly fake. When we were videoed for that show, we were in the middle of our real lives. Like right there. That’s what we shot. Except, we also had “takes,” which you don’t get in real life. We had a crew there. So you’re in this strange artificial real, performing yourself. This creates a powerful feedback when one is writing an autobiographical poem, through which an author often seeks to reach the realest self through its artifice.

   The “Miscarriage” section of the book is, surprisingly, the funniest.  Please discuss the decision to address miscarriage humorously.  This isn’t the only section of the book that defies expectation; many poems in Patter insert other unexpected emotions or elements.  For example, cruelty and parenting are often paired, especially through the first half of the book.

DK:   I couldn’t think of a way to write about Nicole’s (whose husband I am) miscarriage without mythologizing it, turning it into this procession of symbols that would somehow seek to make the reader feel just what we felt. Such a thing would have been impossible, and perhaps pointless. Was the miscarriage we experienced the most traumatic anyone has ever experienced? How could I know such a thing, from my limited vantage — my emotional experience and secondhand physical experience? I struggled with that for a few years, really. But it struck me one day: write about this horror the same way I wrote about the Middle Passage in “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-folk” in The Black Automaton (Fence, 2009). Thus, I wrote several that day.

Poet’s Bio

Poet/performer/librettist Douglas Kearney’s first full-length collection of poems, Fear, Some, was published in 2006 by Red Hen Press.  His second, The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009), was Catherine Wagner’s selection for the National Poetry Series.  It was also a Pen Center USA Award Finalist in 2010.  That same year, Corollary Press released his chapbook-as-broadside-as-LP, Quantum Spit.  His newest chapbook is SkinMag (A5/Deadly Chaps, 2012).  He has received a Whiting Writers Award, a Coat Hanger award and fellowships at Idyllwild and Cave Canem.  Raised in Altadena, CA, he lives with his family in California’s Santa Clarita Valley.  He teaches at CalArts.

Visit Douglas Kearney's website at

Author's Note:Every effort was made, to varying degrees of success, to present the three poems above in a way consistent with their appearance in Patter.  This was no easy task as Kearney's "visually antic joints" defy, in obvious ways, just about every attempt to do so.  For the first two I resorted, after some failed attempts, to simple image scans (they're both a bit cockeyed).  For the latter, though much less adventurous in it's physical form, I have typed, the very best I can, several sections, trying my darndest to get the spacing right and to address other stylistic matters that made grammar check very, very angry.