How many poems can you name that explore the complicated relationship between fathers and sons? There are a lot. Some of the best and most-well known are Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz"; Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays"; and Ray Carver's "Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year". These poems all explore the relationship with tenderness, even when the father's faults and limitations are patently obvious. How much more difficult is it to write without descending into inarticulate rage and grief when the relationship was fraught with violence and abuse?
Mark Doty, in an interview with Bill Moyers in Fooling With Words, has said, "I might write a poem which begins in raw and inchoate feeling. Most of my poems do begin that way. They come tumbling out of me, but that's a cry, not a poem...I have to stand back from them and begin to shape the language so that the poem becomes available to another person. You must stand at a distance from yourself and apply all the resources you can muster to the raw stuff of experience. It's not easy, especially when you are writing about the hardest things in the world, which is what poetry must do ultimately." That's the trick, isn't it - standing back far enough to shape experience into poetry. It's bloody hard, especially when psychic and physical trauma are the experience. It requires a poet with significant writing chops and great artistic maturity.
Jim Valvis, in his poem "The Pause," has done it. "The Pause" moves through emotional shifts effortlessly and with gut-wrenching effect.
Reading a collection of poems about abuse,
blurbs noting the poet's brilliance and bravery,
the hated father attacking the poet's I narrator,
the self-pity mummified in metaphor,
it occurs to me: the poet's father is an angel
compared to mine. So my mind reaches back,
and I see my dad, drunk and handsome,
eyes bloodshot and face red and roiling with rage,
drawing his belt from his waist, the sound
hissing like a snake. What have I done this time?
No matter. I'm incapable of being too disobedient.
I tiptoe through life as if I have glass feet
and one stubbed toe will shatter me.
Once the beating begins, there's yelling,
his screeching, and my pathetic promises
to be better, though who recalls the exact words
as the belt impacts, as it smacks flesh
and births blood worms that puff the skin?
No, all you hear is the buzz,
the bee stings of leather
as you raise your arm like a thin white flag.
There isn't any poetry there, or even sense,
until-- a pause, some plea
scraping though the slush of his soused mind,
the belt stayed, still cocked over his head,
like Zeus holding a brown bolt of lightning,
or a Homeric hero hacking off the tail of Cerberus.
My father's eyes clear, then cloud again
with doubt, despair, disbelief
that he's become no better than his own father,
a circle realizing he's run and run,
and traveled nowhere. It's just a flicker.
Then the belt is busy again, the rage greater
for the doubt, the sadness, the connection.
Yet when I look up at him, and think of him now,
I see him not as failed father
but fallen fighter. Though I admit
I'm neither brilliant nor brave. He could've killed me
and I'd have found a way to love him anyway.
Look at the tonal shifts. The poems begins with the speaker "Reading a collection of poems about abuse" with a kind of sarcastic bravado: "The poet's father was an angel/compared to mine." This works on several levels, most importantly to lure the reader in. Would we have the courage to continue if the poem began with the beating? Maybe not. But we are there when the tone shifts, when the speaker slides backwards in time to face his drunken, raging father, "drawing his belt from his waist/the sound hissing like a snake," and then the question, "What have I done this time?" The answer is, of course, nothing: "I'm incapable of being too disobedient." The description of the terrible beating - so easy to turn into that cry Doty speaks of - instead is a horrifically precise tableau where "there isn't any poetry there, or even sense," culminating in the moment of insight for both the father and the son when "my father's eyes clear, then cloud again/with doubt, despair, disbelief/that he's become no better than his own father/a circle realizing he's run and run,/and traveled nowhere." Then, of course, "the belt is busy again, the rage greater/for the doubt, the sadness, the connection."
The poem's crux is the link between the then and now: "Yet when I look up at him, and think of him now,/ I see him not as a failed father/but a fallen fighter." Then those devastating last lines: "He could have killed me,/and I'd have found a way to love him anyway." There is a masterful blending here of the boy who was and the man who is. We don't change into different beings as we age. The boy is with the man always. And compare the ending of this poem with its beginning. We have moved from an exterior, protective sarcasm to the deeply vulnerable expression of love for an completely unloveable man.
This is one of those poems that stays with you for a long time. It does, as Mark Doty says, what poetry is supposed to do: it takes on "the hardest things in the world" and turns them into art.