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    The Mystery of Father-Son Relationships

    The poems in B. H. Fairchild’s An Ordinary Life explore the unresolvable, undefinable relationship between fathers and sons.

    By Benjamin P. Myers

    April 30, 2024

    Even in America we are, all of us, living with the past. That, in Eliot’s words, “all time is eternally present” may be especially evident in the aged habitations of New England, but the broad and open southern plains, although they may look like a blank slate, are also haunted. There are, after all, fathers and sons there, and complicated relationships produce ghosts. This much is evident in B. H. Fairchild’s latest collection of poetry, An Ordinary Life.

    Fairchild has been a prominent name in American poetry since the nineties. The Art of the Lathe, Fairchild’s third book, is to my generation of poets what Radiohead’s OK Computer is to my generation of indie musicians. The Art of the Lathe helped establish a central place in American poetry for a certain kind of narrative and anecdotal poem that is touched by confessionalism without the psychological sensationalism one might associate with the confessional poets. From his early work on, Fairchild’s best poems have always had a sense of layered time, of past inhabiting the present. Often, this sense of layered time is connected to an exploration of the relationship between fathers and sons.

    These themes are evident in this book’s second and best poem, the astonishing and heart-breaking poem titled “On the Sorrow God Pours into the Little Boat of Life.” The poem begins in the punk rock section of a record store, where “the narrator” or “the speaker” stands, except that it is easier to dispense with such critical niceties and just assume that the music shopper is, at least in some sense, Fairchild himself. He is watching a video of an old Supremes concert, perhaps on a video display in the store or perhaps on his phone, and the video is not so much transporting him back to the sixties as layering the sixties onto the present. He thinks about the war and about protest, change, promise, and disappointment. It turns out that this reverie on the more distant past is meant primarily to hold off a more fresh memory, the memory of the recent death of his son. When the recent memory nonetheless reasserts itself, the poet collapses under its weight, falling to the floor of the music store. All of this is told in Fairchild’s signature line of medium length free verse, always hovering on the edge of blank verse and occasionally slipping into the more formal line. This near iambic-pentameter is a comfortable vehicle for storytelling, and, without the distraction of flashy poetics, we are pulled into the very personal account. The death of one’s child, regardless of his or her age, is one of the most unimaginably painful experiences in life, and there are only a few great poems that can capture the pain without sentimentality or bombast. Ben Jonson’s “On My First Son” is one, and Fairchild’s poem is another. Fairchild’s direct and restrained narrative voice is ideal for exploring such a raw and emotional subject without false feeling.

    When a young shopper helps him up, the encounter blooms into an understated but beautiful moment of human connection and consolation:

    You know, fifty years ago I would have asked you
    to dance,
    and she says, Sir, I would be happy
    to dance with you,
    and so we do for a few seconds
    there in the middle of the Punk Rock aisle …

    This moment in the poem shows us the comfort of a small tenderness, how sometimes the consolation for life’s sorrows is not less of life but rather more. One thinks of Raymond Carver’s great short story, “A Small Good Thing.”

    Like Carver’s story, Fairchild’s poem ends on a spiritual note. The brief moment of dancing passes, and his young dancing partner tells him how sorry she is for his loss. He then closes the poem with this reflection:

    And I thank her, and once again I know as if by
    physical touch alone the innocence and kindness
    of the hopeful before the world disappoints them
    and it all seems like some awful rowing toward God
    in a hard rain, one wave, one lie, after another, and
    they are so tired, the oars so heavy, that they slowly
    open their hands and pray and lean into the dark.

    When we remember the evocation of the poet’s own youth in the sixties at the poem’s beginning – the promise and the disappointment – we understand that he is talking more about himself in these lines than he is about his dancing partner. The ending is ambiguous but moving, pointing the reader to not just the things in life that can break us, but also that to which we may be broken open. This is a difficult consolation, consistent with the spiritual agon that runs through Fairchild’s body of work. The poem thus offers both the small, human comfort and the bigger, more sublime view, each perfectly balanced with the other throughout the poem.

    Other poems in the collection also take up the interlocking themes of past and present and father and son, though only a few directly address the death of the poet’s adult son. “Welder,” “Allegory,” “Revenge,” “Benny Goodman,” and “My Father, Fighting the Fascists in WW II” all seem to focus on the poet’s difficult relationship with his own father. A poet coming from a line of welders, farmers, and other hard working men is likely to feel some anxiety about whether or not his chosen profession actually counts as “work,” and, though it is possible the skeptical attitude Fairchild attributes to his father is based in the historical reality of their relationship, one wonders if the rift between the father and the son doesn’t also reflect an internal rift in the poet. Is Fairchild reflecting both the actual tensions with his father and the internalized versions of it that he carried forward into his relationship with his own son? The poems about the poet’s father are certainly rendered more resonant and moving in the context of the loss addressed in “On the Sorrow God Pours into the Little Boat of Life” and in the collection’s final and title poem, “An Ordinary Life.” Wisely, in none of these poems does Fairchild attempt to solve or sum up the mysteries of the father-son relationship. Rather, he allows the poems to root themselves in the unresolvable, undefinable nature of that relationship.

    I have focused mainly on Fairchild’s subject, but I don’t want to lose sight of his art. An Ordinary Life contains lines that are detailed in imagery and chiseled in expression, often leading to surprise, as in the opening lines of “Groceries,” where he writes, “The dropped can of mushroom soup thudded dull / and flat, the way grenades did hitting frozen earth, / Tom said.” In “Two Sonnets,” a poem composed exactly as the title suggests, he displays impressive skill with rhyme and meter. The rhyme is subdued – kept in the background – at the poem’s beginning:

    It was the only world we knew back then:
    brown fields, oil pumps like great birds that rose
    and fell, big haired women, roughneck crews.
    The rig lot sunk in mud when storms blew in,
    and country songs that told of love and sin.

    The enjambment, the play of sentence against line, and the use of weaker words at the line’s end all help to obscure the structure of the Italian sonnet. Yet the sonnet form is working in the background, giving the poem a strong sense of movement as, returning to Fairchild’s perpetual layering of time, we are pulled out of memory and into the present in the final lines:

    But soon the drops that diamonded her face
    seem more like tears, and grief begins to form.
    For that was long ago, and now I dream
    of hair in rain. A girl I love. A time. A place.

    The rhyme helps the poem click to a close, of course, but that closing is so satisfactory because the poems has used the propulsion of the form to enact the inevitable movement from past to present. One wishes Fairchild would write more sonnets.

    Perhaps less successful is the short run of prose poems written in the voice of one Roy Eldridge Garcia, a persona Fairchild used also in his previous collections Usher and The Blue Buick. These poems engage, though only lightly, in the sort of surrealism one expects from prose poems. One poem describes a friend whose “nervous tick” drives him to bite the nearest person whenever someone says the word “spatula.” The poems are occasionally lyrical in vivid and interesting ways: “Her husband, Tom, lay in bed beside her, staring at the stars she had painted on the ceiling and listening to the litany of sighs from semis down-shifting along the highway.” In “The Meeting of the Board,” he turns the surrealism in the affecting direction occasionally taken in the best of John Ashbery’s work: “Their fathers weigh heavily upon their backs, but the acquired grace of mercantile demeanor renders the daddies scarcely noticeable.” Usually, however, the poems lack exactly those qualities of directness and restraint that typify Fairchild’s best work. In prose poems such as “The Glass Children,” the sentences are occasionally slightly verbose and awkward without the discipline Fairchild invariably brings to his iambic-adjacent verse. Prose does not seem to suit his gifts.

    There is also a problem on the conceptual level in that the persona voicing the poems is really known only to the poet, being neither a well-known figure the reader could be expected to know already nor a figure the poet has defined established for the reader. Thus, the technique of voicing the poems through the persona adds nothing to their interest. It is just a name. One suspects, however, that writing persona poems gives Fairchild a chance to step outside of what has become his instantly recognizable mode: the near blank verse, the directness, the rural setting. It is possible that these poems are more a product of necessity in the poet’s process than they are the real work of the poet. They are, in other words, perhaps a byproduct. If so, the brilliance of the other poems in the volume makes excusable the temptation to also publish these persona poems, though we might wish Fairchild had chosen a more accessible persona or had made this persona more accessible to the reader.

    If one excuses the prose poems as a continuing experiment, An Ordinary Life has much to offer. It would be well worth the price for “On the Sorrow God Pours into the Little Boat of Life” alone. In fact, however, there are several poems in this volume that stand up next to Fairchild’s most celebrated and anthologized poems. Fairchild is rare in that he still writes great single poems: candidates for the canon of American lyric poetry.

    Contributed By BenjaminMyers Benjamin P. Myers

    Benjamin Myers is the author of four volumes of poetry, including his most recent book, The Family Book of Martyrs (Lamar University Press, 2022).

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