The Emma Press Anthology of Fatherhood, ed. by Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright, (The Emma Press, 2014), 60pp, £10. ISBN 978-1-910139-00-4
Reviewed by Paul McMenemy [Originally published in LP4, November 2014]
A few months ago my father turned 60. To celebrate he bought his first ever passport, and asked me to go on holiday with him for a few days.
“Okay! Where are we going?”
So sometime later I found myself underneath the English Channel and, the view not proving very stimulating (some part of my brain had hoped to see fish swimming past the window), I took out a book.
“What are you reading?”
“A book of poems about fatherhood. It’s for a review.” This was said perhaps somewhat defensively. To my surprise, my father, who has never been much for poetry, asked for a look.
Somewhere around the Belgian border he handed it back, having read the whole thing.
“What did you think?”
“Some of it was a bit over my head, but I liked a lot of it. I especially liked this one.”
I had liked that one too.
It’s a nice story, isn’t it? In some ways it’s a very Emma Press story. Emma Wright has said that she wanted her press to be personal – most poetry presses and magazines are one man (or woman) in a shed operations, and it is perverse to pretend otherwise. I agree with this, but it does mean than Emma Press books have a very particular look and feel to them – something a little bit Etsy. I don’t mean that they are poorly made – very much the opposite, in fact (as one might expect of a book containing 35 poems and costing £10) – but with Wright’s Posy Simmondsish illustrations there is something… well, if you saw someone reading one in public, you might feel justified to believe certain things about that person – that they spent their weekends baking cupcakes and knitting iPhone covers, for example.
And this is not entirely fair. The fathers in this collection are not all comfortable becardiganed men – they are gods, kings, Vikings, dead men and living. But in life some fathers are also absent, and there are few absent fathers here, few that it would be better if they were, and that, perhaps, is a missed opportunity.
Nonetheless, this is not to say that there is no conflict here. Alan Buckley’s ‘Joinery Work’ narrating a daughter’s fraught relationship with her father ‘fighting his brute, inarticulate love’; Richard O’Brien’s ‘Queen Dick’, imagining Richard Cromwell growing up with Oliver:
I feel the Army breathing down my neck,
writing a multi-tome treatise entitled
How to Ruin Everything
and then his own failed relationships with his children; Sara Hirsch’s ‘Tonight Matthew’ detailing her difficulty in coping, as a twelve year old, with her father’s cancer: often it feels like the main theme here is distance – the sincere wish for understanding between father and child foiled by something neither can quite articulate.
Some of these poems hint that the divisive factor is the false position the parent is put in: the notion that he is an authority. The father is caught between knowing he is not, and having, as convincingly as he can, to give the impression that he is. The best illustration of this might be Kirsten Irving’s ‘Mysterious Work’, which takes the central metaphor of the indie video game Octodad (the player has to control a moustachioed octopus as he goes about simple daily tasks, hindered by the fact he has no skeletal structure, or “churchwork of bones”, in Irving’s phrase) and runs with it.*
We who cover our beaks with moustaches,
who gobble nonsense at our children, hoping not
to raise their suspicion, that they will not see now
the mess we make of everything, our true form
A more concrete example of this can be found in the anthology’s opening poem, ‘Bath-Towel Wings’ by Nathan Curnow, when his infant daughter announces, apropos of nothing obvious, ‘I don’t want to die.’ How does a father respond to that?
I tell her that I love her but she’s heard it before.
She wants to know where we go after this.
She believes in Santa. I can’t let her trust Jesus.
This collection is less about fatherhood than about death, life and birth, which is perhaps not such a very different thing: the central fact of fatherhood, and of a child’s relation to its father, seems to be fear of loss. Harry Man’s ‘Ultrasound’, Hugh Dunkerley’s ‘Premature’, John Fuller’s ‘Daughter’, Rachel Piercey’s ‘After “Loss of Sons”’ all articulate this from the father’s point of view in one way or another; Martin Malone’s ‘Digitalis’, Katrina Naomi’s ‘Meeting My Fathers’, John Saunders’s ‘My father is the breeze that opens the shed door’, from the child’s – the last poem illustrating that, despite the seemingly unbridgeable gap between generations, something will get through:
If his ghost appeared to me now
would it be wearing regalia or dungarees?
And the door that blew open –
four by one planed red deal,
tongue and groove,
one and three quarter battens,
three lever mortise lock, recessed.
How did I know that?
And my father’s favourite from the collection? ‘Brown Leather Gloves’ by Oliver Comins: ‘Who’s holding whose hands now?’
On the platform
I remove one Father,
reach out to greet a friend.
My other Father holds me steady.
* Briefly, I would like to say that if you have a problem with a reference like this in poetry, but not with one to, say, the Nemean Lion, then it puts you in a similar position to those critics in the nineties who objected to James Kelman winning the Booker Prize because he wrote in a fuck-heavy Glaswegian dialect, but who had no problem with literary novels including chunks of French or Latin. It is a question of cultural ownership. Not every reference is necessarily for you, but Google is only ever a click away.