(Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2015)
My grandfathers both fought in World War II, my father remains an avid hunter, and I am terrified of guns. Despite this apparent funneling of ‘male toughness,’ fathers in general have an assumed history of being protective, even if that means with violence. My father did take me on hunting trips and taught me how to use a gun, but I preferred shooting a bullseye stapled on a Styrofoam block with a bow and arrow. I marveled at how my father could navigate through the gruesome butcher’s shed after catching a prize buck, and later how he hung antlers from our living room wall as if it were a trophy. None of this interested me.
Nonetheless, these histories live in us, even if in memory alone, and it is hard to defy what might actually be in our blood. Gary Dop explores his own paternal relationships in his collection Father, Child, Water, with a century of wars and his father’s passion for hunting in the foreground. He blends his personal stories and observations with humor-ridden everyday occurrences through a voice that is more than just aware of violence and (what seems like) absurdity—it is affected. The poetry in this collection utilizes clear images, straightforward language, and a musical sound to urge its readers to think about how fathers, and parents in general, affect us. In “Ode to My Love Handles” Dop provides the directive of the collection: “Lead me, / Guide me, walk beside me…”
In “The Only Man in Iowa with Five Cannons” Dop describes a dream where his father is surrounded by cannons in an open field. He ruminates on how his father (who speaks few, if any, words in this collection) might remember his days in the service:
Maybe my father’s the only Marine who wanted
Vietnam but got stuck stateside training grunts,
guarding guns, testing his aim on nothing smarter
than a deer, nothing that knows death
as more than a scent, nothing that shoots back, nothing
to test the worth of a soldier who will learn…
The entire poem is set in tercets, aside from the last stanza. This allows the reader to trust the speaker’s articulation of his father’s psyche. Despite the surprises this poem contains between its clever enjambments, we know what to expect, at least, in how it is told. Not only that, but the alliteration and lack of conjunctions in most of this piece string together these associations as one cohesive thought, albeit scattered and jolting. This stream of consciousness is then able to flow in a realistic manner, one where the reader can feel the bitterness and anxiety, all the more so with the repetition of “nothing.”
In the final stanza, the father fires the cannons and the speaker wakes up “to our world without want of cannons.” The image in this piece is painful, full of longing—strangely enough—for fighting in a war, but alas—it was all a dream! This allows the speaker to contain this opinion to a single poem, yet the use of dream logic ironically solidifies these emotions as reality—these sentiments are exactly what he thinks and dreams of his father’s recollections. It is clear that the speaker cannot relate to these desires, though he is affected enough to imagine that what his father desires is only a dream.
Amidst the unravelling of this relationship, the speaker also explores his own disconnection with his daughter. She reveals that she cannot write poetry in “Little Girl, Little Lion”, because “Daddy, girls can’t be poets.” The speaker thinks “…I’ve never thought / about how my daughter mirrors herself in Mommy // who doesn’t write.” The speaker believes this preconceived notion can be remediated. He searches for the nearest collection written by a female poet, but when the daughter chooses Sylvia Plath the speaker quickly snatches it away. This image is hilarious, yet it stimulates a recurring theme in Dop’s collection. These thoughts, curated by simply observing those who raise us, may, even for a moment, define who we can become. The speaker cannot explain to his young daughter that the poem she flips to in Plath’s collection, “Daddy”, is an angry rant to her father, but as he denies her this insight, she might still believe women cannot be poets. Through these experiences, Dop creates a world that is cyclical in nature, from every perspective.
But this collection is not as heavy handed as I may have let on to this point. The poems I have mentioned are all within the first of the collection’s three parts. This is not to say that such shadow is not cast on the later moments—the camping trips, Midwest summers, and a child’s challenge to the ice cream man. You can’t help but think of the effect on the characters in these poems, but my favorite aspect of the collection is its dark humor. In one of the final pieces in the collection, “Bill Bitner Daydreams”, Dop writes of a man who yearns to sell hotdogs:
I want to sell
hot dogs for
a day from a
corner in the
and relish the
dogs, get your
hot dogs, like
to stay alive.
This image alone is funny and absurd, but the sound—with similar alliteration and repetition as some of the other poems—brings a seriousness. Factor in the emotional stakes recalled from the father in “The Only Man in Iowa with Five Cannons” and his unreasonable desperation, and the character here becomes sympathetic. That is a testament to the strong, clear narrative poetry and how each piece fits together.
Father, Child, Water has an inherently protective quality to it—it fights, rebels, has a dark sense of humor. I suppose protection is one of the most desired qualities of fatherhood in its most noble form, but this poetry argues for a deeper sense of purpose. Dop’s poems show how terrifying fathers can be, with their hunting, wars, and doubts, but also how intensely they strive to show their children meaning. Luckily for the reader, the humorous images in these poems offset such a heavy handed subject matter, yet both work towards the same emotions. With such clear writing and strong voices, Father, Child, Water encourages its readers to think, question, and imagine their own lives in a new light.
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Timothy Lindner is an MFA graduate from Fairleigh Dickinson University who currently works as the Planning & Resourcing Specialist within Content Management for John Wiley & Sons, Inc.