Monday, July 20, 2015

Father, Child, Water by Gary Dop
(Red Hen Press, 2015)

reviewed by Josh Cook

Gary Dop’s charming debut collection, Father, Child, Water, wrestles with many myths, the most prominent being conventional manhood. Favoring narrative, anecdote, and stand-up-like swerves over music and fancy footwork, Dop reinstates the idea that poetry can, first and foremost, invite rather than challenge. As the title suggests, the book is split into three sections. “Father” begins with an eponymous love letter to a child:
    I lift your body to the boat
    before you drown or choke or slip too far

    beneath. I didn’t think—just jumped, just did
    what I did like the physics

    that flung you in

Dop deploys Biblical imagery throughout the collection, sometimes utilized to clarify attitude—in the above poem, the child is referred to as “fountain cherub”—and sometimes in borderline pastiche. In “To My Love Handles,” a humorous homage to the middle-aged body, the speaker begins:

    The body’s seers, you prophesy
    to the left, to the right, where the rest of me—
    my loves—will go. Lead me,

    guide me, walk beside me. I sneak cookies
    in the night to strip off the guilt
    of the South Beach sin that enslaves me
    and threatens your lives. Together,

    we flow into the wide world,
    our promised land of whole milk and honey
    butter. We pass on Norwegian girth

It’s a signature Dop poem. The humor slides easily off, but underneath, there’s that apparent wrestling: what is a man? A father? A saint? A sinner? An obsession with legacy runs through the collection, too. “Shifting the Bolt,” a hunting scene set on the Nebraska-Kansas border, is the most obvious example. The young speaker, after unloading the gun his father gave him, asks “if he hunted with his father.” But legacy is more fraught and complex in “Little Girl, Little Lion.” The speaker’s daughter tells him that girls can’t be poets, and in an effort to both correct and empower, the speaker wonders, “…how can I / wrecking ball the commandments she’s constructed?”

In the second section, “Child,” a number of subtextual strains crop up, the most surprising of which is the incredulity of war—surprising because, in the case of “A Brief Argument,” the second father-son hunting poem, the speaker’s father is a veteran. Here the most intriguing inner conflicts are made apparent: the need to wrestle with your most intimate relationships and institutions. The speaker in “Shifting the Bolt” seems an older, disquieted version of the speaker in “A Brief Argument.” After five shots to a slowly dying buck, he anxiously hopes that his father “won’t see the mess I’ve made, / the mess I’ve become.”

“That Night in Mobridge” encapsulates the manifold angsts of this section. The speaker of the poem reflects on an old classmate’s lapse in belief. After speaking in tongues and claiming to see angels, the speaker addresses his classmate:

    You remind me we were boys, and I see
    doubt swallowed you like candy sucked to nothing.
    Now, I don’t want to speak with you for fear

    I’ll be swallowed

From community and family to the existential, the collection moves outward. The third section, “Watershed,” suggests a swerve, not only in the collection itself, but away from the previously-inhabited tones of earnest confession and light-hearted sarcasm. Comprised entirely of persona poems—one of the many strengths of the collection—these often comic sketches speak to Dop’s self awareness: let’s take a break from all this talk of belief and terror and fatherhood and see what the rest of the world has to say. These are both more tightly constrained (formally organized, narrative-centric) and Dionysian (jazzy, offbeat).

The collection gets increasingly funnier, though no less earnest in its empathetic reach. In a cycle of three poems titled, “Simulations,” Dop inhabits the voice of “Pothead Pete,” who begins his class presentation like this:

    Shakespeare, the top American writer ever,
    wrote his plays in an English accent
    like Russell Crowe. Merchant of Venice

    is a problem play because it’s about hard crap
    like racism and the civil rights movement,
    but not Martin Luther King who was southern

    and not in Boston like the bard,
    which’s Willie’s nickname. People call me

Dop saves the weirdest for last with a cycle of Bill Bitner poems. Bitner is a possibly mentally ill, working class guy infatuated with his mother who freely tells of his prostate infections and bizarre encounters while delivering pizza. At one moment, he seems loopy or deranged, as in “Bill Bitner Goes to Walmart”: “Eyes to the front, I’m an undercover  fed who has to score / some crack[…]” But in another, “Bill Bitner Daydreams,” Dop invokes our compassion,  as Bill tells of his desire to sell hot dogs on a city corner, “like / everyone / needs me / to stay alive.”

Fable, parable, joke, character study, epics in miniature: there’s a precocious range at work in this collection, which is both the collection’s strength and mystery. Though accessible, the poems strain toward plurality. In a seemingly innocent recollection of a childhood campout, the speaker of “Winter Campout,” shares a sleeping bag with his friend after forgetting his own and says, “We didn’t tell anyone or touch / the deep questions,” which may suggest an unwilling homosexual curiosity. In another, “To the Ice Cream Man,” a highlight, the speaker begins, “I got no green for your red, / white and blue bomb pops,” which simultaneously suggests race and the oppressive capital. In this way, the people that populate Dop’s pages are perfectly human; that is, they are rendered compassionately and, like the best fiction, with exquisite attention to psychic complexity, no matter the person—rich, poor, child, father, grandmother, prodigal.

The poems, for the most part, heed that old advice to get out of the way and let the poem do its work, but this economy doesn’t negate playfulness. There’s some amusing wordplay, subtle puns, and deliciously-crystalline detail, but they don’t grope for attention. Instead, they highlight Dop’s dedication to the poem, the speaker, the situation. When he conjures a laugh, it’s well earned and perfectly timed, as in “The Long Madness.” The Speaker attends a play at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. When Sir Ian McKellan drops his pants, the speaker describes the boy next to him:

    […] eyes, two wide balls,

    like Gollum’s, saw
    the future

    the wrinkled future,
    which hung

    before us,
    all glorious

    and magical, foreshadowing
    the ups and many downs.

Father, Child, Water is a colorful sundry of voice and character that, underneath all its existential wrestling, deceptive insouciance, and clever humor, celebrates the very thing it questions, which is what makes it—and Gary Dop—seem all the more established.

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