Probably my favorite thing about this time of year, aside from the, erm, fauna strolling around town, is the fact that the sun doesn’t disappear until 9:00 or so, and that dusk can last even longer. I’m sitting right now in the Starbucks on the corner (which doesn’t close until midnight: more marvels!) watching the sky over the west side of Chelsea fade cleanly from orange to dark blue, which is quite nice after getting all the usual evening errands and things done during the day. And the air outside is just the right temperature, and the rain has taken a break… this is what I call an evening well-spent.
But I don’t want to spend an evening without doing something productive, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about the other book I managed to get done over the weekend, Bryan Borland‘s Less Fortunate Pirates. I’ve known Bryan almost as long as I’ve had this blog, and he’s one of the few blogosphere people I’ve met on a few occasions in person, thanks to his frequent New York trips. I’d almost hazard that he has become better known in recent years for his spearheading of Sibling Rivalry Press, producing the magazine Assaracus, and putting Arkansas back on the poetry map (unless there’s some secret contingent of Arkansas poets I don’t know about). However, he is a fine poet in his own right as well, and his first book, My Life As Adam, makes for a scintillating debut. (And lastly, he is a Southern gentleman. Très important.)
Less Fortunate Pirates bears the subtitle, “Poets from the First Year without My Father”, so you know right away that this collection will gravitate heavily towards family, loss, and memory. I remember the hints on Bryan’s blog surround his father’s passing, but to see it articulated from so many angles and with such a deft hand deepens not only the experience of shared emotions, but also digs deep into all the other dimensions of this father figure. Elegiac poetry can function as a kind of resurrection: it’s easy to bury ourselves along with the departed, à la W.H. Auden (and don’t get me wrong, “Funeral Blues” breaks my heart every time I hear it, it just doesn’t give me any idea why I should care about its subject), and it’s hard to keep the deceased person talking, moving, having an impact on our lives. The conceit of Pirates is how it traces that exact year, chronologically, from the time of the father’s death in a car accident. I am no expert on the stages of grief, but if the cycle created here is a representative case of the complexity of emotions involved in losing a parent, then certainly there are more than five, woven together, repeated and reflected, moving between anger and denial, but also the extremes of love and dedication.
There is an aspect of automatic writing as well in here. I don’t mean in the James Merrill Ouija board kind of way, but in the sense that in several poems, the father figure seems to insert himself into moments where he would not be expected otherwise: family barbecues, meditations on business, relationship angst, etc. (Of course, there are poems overtly about death as well, but those are the ones we expect.) In my limited experience with losing loved ones, and seeing how others are affected as well, it does seem to me that one of the key elements is the way they make their presence known in the quotidian. Maybe in this sense, the book owes something to Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do”; Bryan’s work also carefully blends direct address to the departed and narrative whose orbit continually brings him closer to his father’s flickering star.
And there are some cutting moments as well, when the bitterness shows through: “My friends are divided / into two camps: / those who’ve lost a parent / and those who will lose a parent,” says one poem. Another talks about the necessity of staying with a lover because they are the only one, moving forward, who will have known the absent father; I remember a friend of mine saying the same thing about her boyfriend. (Perhaps because knowing a partner’s father goes a long way to understanding that partner?) There are all the bad movie trappings happening in real life — inability to choose a headstone, “vultures” circling the widowed mother — and then the minutiae that one doesn’t think of until they arise, from dream journals to inherited joint pain. One poem in the collection has what might be the most subtle nod to the idea of death and incarnation: “The possibility of a stranger’s memory / breaking our skin / is no more unrealistic / than stigmata.” Even when the father’s presence is not spelled out, he lingers on the edge of the page.
Generally speaking, I am not a fan of “therapy poetry”, the most introverted parts of the confessional genre where people exorcise their own demons and emotions about family, love, self, et cetera. I find it difficult to relate to unless, you know, I’m the one writing it; I prefer to do poetry that’s meant to be shared. But I don’t think Pirates falls into that camp at all: rather, there is no question in the author’s mind that the father is loved and missed. There are no conflicted feelings about him as a person which need to be resolved. Rather, the questions surrounding the circumstance of his passing, the weight of What Comes Next, and the relentless sorrow under the surface like a constant beat inform the poetry in the collection. An appreciation and joy for the time that the father and son did manage to spend together darts through all of this like a web of light, holding it all together and keeping the speaker from falling apart. I don’t claim to know whether the book was written as a form of closure, an exploration of other avenues of understanding, or just a reporting of all the assorted thoughts and feelings that rose up in that year, but I think perhaps that unity, the silver lining of grief, is the most valuable takeaway from the book.
And it wouldn’t be much of a review if I didn’t include a few excerpts I found the most moving, would it?:
“It is Memorial Day again. The neighbors
fly a flag from their front porch. Our family
visits, my in-laws, my mother. And it dawns
on me that I can no longer use the word parents
in the present tense. These are our holidays
~ “Memorial Day”
“I remember the time a roman candle
exploded in your hands. The blood
launched like patriotic sparks
across our paved driveway, your pain
~ “The Fourth of July”
“I am ready, she is not, so we are not
ready. I think it is her own mortality
she cannot face, her name etched
beside his, one date known, the other,
and everything else, unknown.”
~ “The Day We Do Not Choose Your Headstone”
One last note: I have not mentioned the significance of the title, because I think it’s best if you, the potential future reader, find it out on your own. I will say that it appears once near the beginning, once at the end, and its one of the sweetest father-son bonds, and ways to honor a lost father, that I can think of. And there is a lot of sweetness, humble and not over-adorned, in these pages. Someone else can judge whether it’s a suitable primer for those of us who fall into that second camp of people waiting with unmixed dread the day we’ll have a book like this to write. For me, it was a helpful prelude: not a warning, but a thorough journey through how we come out the other side all right.
The dusk has given way to night. Here’s the book’s home, if you care to purchase it. Pax!