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Review of Telling My Father by James Crews

Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2017

$15 (paper)

Reviewed by Grunge

[James Crews is a contributing editor to this magazine–Editor]

The sober, plain-spoken, gently ironic, and good-humored voice in James Crews’s second full-length collection, Telling My Father, confirms the promise evident in the poet’s first collection, The Book of What Stays. These new poems demonstrate the subsequent growth of his considerable formal skills and emotional range. Telling My Father is a tender portrait of the poet’s relations with his father. What distinguishes this work and its subject is the poet’s confident appraisal of his and his father’s lives together. Nowhere is that more poignantly clear than the gruff-seeming working-class man’s tenderness in response to his son’s coming-out, their affection for each other as the father faces an early death, and how the older man’s presence continues to haunt and enrich his son’s life.

A former student of Ted Kooser’s, Crews shares his mentor’s generous, open-hearted approach to his materials. A midwesterner by birth and a rural Vermonter by choice, what Crews possesses in droves that is entirely his own, though, is something rare—an ear finely tuned to the rollicking vocables of American English. Here in the opening lines of “Human Being,” bright vowels and jangling consonants fill the lines and echo the poem’s humorous regard for our awkward efforts to avoid the hazards of the human condition:

The human part of us
wants and needs and breaks,
but the being part sees
beyond the body’s aching
joints and joyful noises…

Moments later, we encounter this more earthy aural darkening in “Chore,” in which the poet observes his father excavate an oak stump by hand:

…pulling up taproots whose prickly hairs
clung to bits of red clay they brought
into lake-chilled air. He chipped away 
at heartwood gone soft in rain until
it became a pile of pulp around a hole
in ground filled with soil and seed.

The poem gives no reason for the father’s labor, though its aural pleasures suggest the purpose is entirely in the doing.  Elsewhere, too, Crews lets “biceps / lips,” “Hong Kong / rolling along,” or “a pore / like a door,” call to one another in proximity and with the natural ease of an athlete dodging through traffic. Then there is the particular joy of the poet’s father’s idiomatic American-English, which crops up throughout this collection. Salting tomatoes in “Halfway Heaven,” a poem about his father’s efforts to bestow upon his son “the only language of manhood he knew— / Phillips head, needle-nose, catalytic converter,” a language the son “hated” as a child, but now confesses “I want it all back.” The poet quotes his father, “explaining for instance, why tomatoes / taste better with a kiss of salt: Brings out / the sweetness, sorta speak.” True enough of tomatoes, this father and son, and the line that animates this memory. Crews brings to this new body of work a maturing capacity to embody in language the sacredness of the ordinary. “Call it holy,” he writes in “As You Label It, So It Appears to You,” and “holy is what you will taste.”

That act of willful naming is a form of rescue, too, as in a very frank poem about the father’s youthful and violent homophobia, “Inheritance.” Though it may be a fiction, the poet uncovers among his father’s last effects “the rusted but still sharp switchblade” that was the grandfather’s gift to his own son. The knife recalls the story of the poet’s father as a young man getting off his shift at Grossman Steel and sharing a bottle of Jim Beam with a buddy while they cruise “the park where men went for other men,” a nicely ambiguous turn of phrase as the father and friend are not exactly cruising for sex. A small, touching group of poems follows “Inheritance” that address the poet’s coming out, which this knife now in his hand, and the father’s subsequent gesture of acceptance and respect for his son, resonate deeply, as in this collection’s eponymous poem.

“In Telling My Father,” the poet writes about waking late and walking onto the porch where his father is seated:

My father turned to me then, taking in
the reek of my smoke, traces of last night’s
eyeliner I decided not to wipe off this time.
Out late was all he said. And then smiled,
rubbing the small of my back through the robe
for a while, before heading inside, letting
the storm door click shut behind him.
Later, when I stepped into the kitchen,
I saw it waiting there on the table—a glass
of orange juice he had poured for me and left
sweating in a patch of sunlight so bright
I couldn’t touch it at first.

Perhaps because paternal acceptance is so rare or arrives so belatedly (and perhaps because as a father of sons I feel indicted by this), such moments of clarity as this strike to the heart. This moment, similar in many ways to a generous question James Baldwin’s father poses to the author in “Notes of a Native Son,” is the gift of a true, rather than covert life. We know the son will touch the sweating glass and drink a long draft, though it depends on the father whether it will be a draft of bitterness or sweetness.

A number of other poems here are among Crews’s most ambitious, in which the strong personal emotions that initiate the poems are balanced by the poet’s typical lightness, in one of Calvino’s restricted senses: “…we should remember that the idea of the world as composed of weightless atoms is striking just because we know the weight of things so well. So, too, we would be unable to appreciate the lightness of language if we could not appreciate language that has some weight to it.” Crews is a master of that skill, conveying the gravity of ordinary, virtually weightless things at the periphery of awareness. Calvino’s description of lightness is an apt characterization of “After Love,” in which we read:

While you slept, one arm pinning me
against the bed, I watched a pigeon limp
across the skylight, his tiny feet printing
a message in soot and dust I took to mean:
Suffer the limits and learn to praise this dream.

I’m tempted to type an exclamation after “dream,” but the poet is having none of it, as he immediately adds a lengthy rejoinder: “I could not stand the way pleasure / clouds the mind,” and that ends with flies settling “on our bodies,—buzzing, feasting, / having their way with us.” The placing of the grave and the ephemeral here is an accomplished example of linguistic chiaroscuro.

Crews accomplishes much the same effect as Calvino describes in one of his finest and most poignant poems, “God Spot,” in which he meditates on “that place / in the brain said to be the sole sweet spot / where we link with his signals.” The poem’s lightness, captured especially by that pun (“sole”) in the first stanza is given weight as well by the drama that unfolds in the second half of the poem. Here the poet is wakened by “the sudden weight / of someone sitting on the edge of my bed, ” only to find himself alone before a series of thresholds, “as my heart hammered home its lone / message: I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.” Readers, too, suffer the limits here, while trying to praise the dream.

There is much else to praise in these open-hearted, intuitive, ultimately philosophical poems. Though Telling My Father concludes with a question the father poses to his son, the question (like the entirety of the book that precedes it) echoes the kind of assurance Whitman offers readers: “How do you know / I’m always with you.” The poet declines to answer the specific question, but the line break permits an ambiguity that is affirmative even in the face of loss. James Crews reminds us to take heart and take our time to allow our own lives to discover a true answer.