‘Patter’ by Douglas Kearney
Author Photo: Los Jackson
Douglas Kearney’s latest collection is one of only a handful of books I can think of that addresses pregnancy, birth and their surrounding difficulties from the perspective of the father. Patter is about the attempt to attain that title, but the fear of all it entails. Kearney’s music as we know it from his other work is still here, yet continues to push his limits. The diction is straightforward, yet also startles, leaning on consonants and/or complicated syntax and/or grammar that hit you hard – “a tabby bats a wren up-wise” and “my dreams are remembers now / they a when.” This keeps the reader on her toes and forces her to slow down, taking in this complex book at the pace the subject deserves.
Kearney has broken Patter into five sections. The first is called “Father of the Year,” and involves several poems with that subtitle. The series of poems considers fathers who, in one way or another, deeply damaged their children, or were fucked up, or absent, or just fathers that stand in our minds as troubling/troubled (Jhvh, Daedalus, Jim Trueblood, Noah, to name a few). In the piece devoted to Abraham, Jhvh, and Joseph (Jackson), Kearney uses Michael’s words in the Jackson 5 songs “ABC” and “The Love You Save” (among others). The lyrics are mashed up with the moment Abraham almost slits Isaac’s throat at Jhvh’s behest. The implication is the damage fathers do and the limits to which they will go at the expense of their offspring. Mostly, the “Father of the Year” poems read like variations on a terrible theme, and point to Kearney’s anxiety in taking up the role if these fathers are the company he is joining.
On a design and layout level, Patter is amazing and also by Kearney’s hand. The “Father of the Year Application Self-Nomination” sheet is incredible in its detail – including the page number (4 of 16) and a totally believable icon at the top. Kearney went all-out with this book from emotional to physical content.
The second section, “Miscarriages,” begins with a poem that is a recurring motif that reappears in the remaining sections. The poems each include the sentences “I love your body. I hate it,” addressing the complicated and troubling fact that the speaker loves his wife and her body, but also recognizes that it’s the source of complications and chaos due to her miscarriages and their trouble conceiving a child. The difficulty of facing such a disturbing thought is likely why Kearney returns to the lines time and again.
The remainder of “Miscarriages” is deeply interested in how society deals with trouble. In the case of miscarriage, it mostly doesn’t – at least not publicly. Kearney illustrates this in “The Miscarriage: A List of 10 Euphemisms for Use in Stage Banter,” which includes “foxes looted the coop!” and “some seminoles fled the field!” (ie. redness where it shouldn’t be). Each poem in the series provides us with an element of the miscarriage and directly after, but askance. This gives Kearney and his readers the capacity to get the pain in little sips, while also pointing to something beyond his personal experience. Each poem is an exercise in different methods of performance of the trauma – a comic strip, a magic trick, a minstrel show. This book, too, is a kind of show for the reader, and these poems seem to needle both Kearney’s instinct to provide one for us and for us to seek it out.
The section “It Is Designed for Children” is devoted to just that: word puzzles, racist toys/clothing, fables (Little Red Riding Hood, The Tar-Baby), and other such material. If these are what are “designed for children,” then their difficulties will start very early in their lives. The most affecting piece (to me, in the whole of Patter) is “Word Hunt” – putting into relief what American society will invariably tell/teach its young black citizens, no matter what their parents do to inform them otherwise.
Section four is entitled “Goooooo or Goooooo or Goooooo,” which points to semen, and also goo-goo (ga-ga) – baby talk. In these poems, Kearney addresses head-on the difficulties of in vitro fertilization, not afraid to write about having to masturbate and preserving the semen: “babies’ lives in my palm—real life / —stiffen—” Also looking at his semen under a microscope; the use of porn and the women in it and maybe using them to make a daughter; the IVF realities and losses, including trying to have sex and the potential dangers there. In short: Kearney gives us the grimy realities of pregnancy attempts. We have blood, cum, uterus-cum-bull’s-head (think how bulls respond to red/blood) – all of it is here. As he writes, “Just because I’m jerking off don’t mean I don’t want babies.”
In the final section, “In the End, They Were Born on TV,” Kearney begins with my favorite variation on “I love your body. I hate it.” in “Blues Done Red” – an endless musical repeat of the two sentences, and then the incredible breakdown on the next spread of those phrases, everywhere they go in the speaker’s mind.
The longest poem in the section, which shares its name, details Kearney and his wife’s agreement to be on reality television through her pregnancy that ultimately leads to the birth of their twins. He writes,
pregnant women in their houses on TV are haunted houses haunting a house
our living room a set set for us ghosts to tell ghost stories on us
it helps she said of the people from TV’s TV show so yes then to TV to help,
she said, the haunted houses in the living rooms we said yes to help
thousands of wailing houses
While their reason for getting involved in the show is a noble one, it culminates in multiple requests for them to talk about his wife’s miscarriage, their responses to which are consistently cut off by a dog barking, followed by another “take” – “they call them takes, again we’re robbed.”
Near the end Kearney includes one poem for each twin – a quieter piece for his son, and the amazing “I Have a Penis! Mama Has a Penis!” for his daughter, which describes her running around the playground making the title’s pronouncement. Patter ends with “New Parents” – a beautiful and terrible reckoning with having to “move on” (“pick through your blood but you won’t find / what must be done with the others”), the lost potential children’s hauntings, while being parents to the children who survived.
Overall, Patter is a book of anxiety about several things: the role Kearney is stepping into as a father and its deeply troubling history, practice, and psychological as well as societal place. Also, as a black man keenly aware of the difficulties as a marginalized member of society in the United States, knowing what lies ahead for his children. Know that I’ve glossed a great deal of Patter, but only because of word limit (which I have already far exceeded). This is a book worth reading in a single sitting, letting it take you under from the get-go. I have trouble quoting from it (hence the compulsive hyperlinking). It fights being excerpted. But this book is rich – it is a text that you can read many times over for its music, material, bravery, pointed playfulness, its social consciousness, its deep intelligence.
[For further exploration, consider checking out Kearney’s blog, in which he provides digital annotations for each page of Patter.]