by Scott Owens
Main Street Rag Press, 2010
ISBN 13: 978-1-59948-222-4
Sometimes when writing reviews, I have to remember not to stay inside my own head, but that my task is to elucidate my love or repulsion for others to understand. Therefore, I will try to explain to you why Paternity is so perfect, so obviously a book of poems I will come back to again and again, that I find so inspiring. I need to show you why, the way Scott Owens has shown me what paternity means to him.
None of this should be feared.
You have a right to everything.'—"Foundings"
The opening poem of the collection, "Foundings," is both about a boy that Owens is parenting and the boy that Owens was, and is woven tightly with the bittersweet complications that come when we parent, when we are hit again with all that our parents did and did not mean to us and struggle with how we will be parents ourselves. Perhaps I am especially sensitive to this bittersweetness because I am a parent, but these poems, sometimes muscular, sometimes whimsical, are finely wrought vehicles for all the complicated emotions parenting can engender.
would not be so bad.—"Creating Small Occasions"
"Creating Small Occasions," is also the title of one of the four sections of Paternity, the other being "Foundings," "Naming," and "The Good Listener." Paternity itself is also composed of small occasion—backseat conversations, singing a child to sleep, making okra—the kind that become a string of days that end up forming the fabric of parenthood. Each mundane moment is also another chance to be a good parent, and Owens spins each moment into a meditation on a new facet of his life's work.
you have to be careful you're not
holding them back as well.—"Holding Them Up"
Each section begins with or includes a poem by the same name, also full of the functions of parenting, how to listen, to create the perfect holiday or birthday, the power of naming, how you can be so proud and content to be known as "Sawyer's daddy." Sawyer is the young daughter who beats like a heart through most of the book; while Owens speaks of older sons and steps, it seems to be Sawyer that has inspired a new perspective on paternity, the world and his place in it. He writes of the awesome power that parents wield in the lives of our children, and how it can scar and heal at once, especially for those haunted by memories of abuse, by the people we know or fear our children will grow up to be.
to save my life by saving yours.—'Promises at 2 AM"
Lovely glimpses of Sawyer and her first sky full of stars, of Sawyer coloring a blue sky across the top of every page, bookend a pair of poems about the loss of the stepson who appeared on the first page of this collection. In this way, Owens portrays in full how the father's heart can soar and break, leap and rebound. This balance is struck again and again in the collection, saving what might be seen as saccharine (poems incorporating the utterances of toddlers) from becoming overwhelming or cliched. Each moment of joy is tempered by a moment of loss, anxiety or even dissatisfaction, as in "A Father's Complaint," which opens with, "Today I don't want to be a dad." In this way, the collection is cohesive not just by subject, but also by approach, a clear-eyed look at a topic that can seem too insular or cliche.
The poem that best represents this collection, to me, is "On the Days I Am Not My Father," which has been featured on Garrison Keillor's The Writer’s Almanac. It is full of the poignant urges we feel to both imitate and obliterate our parents, who will always be our first models, and the thrill and dismay of seeing ourselves and our parents in our children. Its language is straightforward, its subject complicated, and the poem inspires reflection even as it offers no easy resolutions. Owens, in his fifth poetry collection, is confident, candid and sharp, handling Paternity with caution, joy and full awareness of the dangers and delights it brings.—Jackie Regales