Somehow I’ve spent too much time reading about the several attempts to establish an American Father’s Day. At the turn of the twentieth century, there were failed or unrecognized efforts to celebrate fathers with yearly events at a church or YMCA, yet endorsements followed from Wilson and Coolidge—then the commodification of the celebration during the Great Depression: here’s a bowtie and a set of clubs. For a few decades, Congress fought against a federally-acknowledged celebration of any event that commercialized masculinity. Then after the second World War, Father’s Day became a public event to honor American troops (Mother’s Day was first celebrated immediately following the Civil War). A culture that honors these occasions was born from public catastrophe. Nixon established Father’s Day as a federally-recognized holiday in 1972 during a re-election bid and during the Vietnam War; in February of the same year, America promised to pull 45,000 troops from Vietnam.
Matthew Zapruder’s fifth collection of poems—yes, Father’s Day (Copper Canyon Press, 2019)—helps me remember that public trauma and violence do not nullify the communities in which we thrive and love. Of course there’s trauma in the codes of lineage, and the political discourse of this particular holiday was once a rhetorical move towards power. Lineage, biological and adoptive, is a part of how we make meaning from that violence together, how we pay attention to the difference between rhetoric and poetry. I spent Father’s Day 2019 with my dear friend Baz, eating raviolis his mother cooked for us. Zapruder spends these pages with his wife and son, his friend James Tate, W.S. Merwin, Tomaž Šalamun, Eileen Myles, Dorothea Lasky—with the poet’s hospitality, his community grows to include both of us, me and you, his readers. “Let us walk one more time very slowly”—and this Eliotic bid from “Penultimate Poem,” with its suggestive pronoun, helps me believe that I should, in fact, walk alongside Zapruder and listen to his words in my voice, that acoustic loop sometimes articulated to you, often including some we.
Zapruder knows, too, the difference between rhetoric and poetry is mostly misdirection, a magic act that directs our eyes off-stage or towards the assistant for a moment; the ideal of we cannot be defined in terms specific to everyone, all our selves, and that’s what makes these communities so valuable:
I have known
will come at last
to tell us how
to stop pretending
we don’t know
if it is not
safe for some
it is not
These line from “December,” characteristically without punctuation and following Zapruder’s digressive thought, accomplish what all great lines seem to do: a simultaneous adagio and allegro, measures composed to speed up the line, but lines that are syntactically structured to slow down the voice. A poet controlling time with markings for the performance of his words in the voices of anyone. Then a negation of the following sentence—that everything depends on “no voices”—means to me our we and our us cannot be conceived in the usual terms, those words so comfortable on my television or my computer screen, with sentences and anecdotes mostly understood as rhetoric.
Zapruder clarifies, I think, what he’s trying to accomplish in this book for we and us, the context for composing these poems, in the prose afterword “Late Humanism.” There was the 2016 election, then his son’s autism diagnosis a few weeks later—both concern, in some way, most of the poems from this collection. After an on-the-nose reference to Whitman, who instead of writing an afterword about his we attached a preface to Leaves of Grass about America, Zapruder remembers to look back at the social function of speech:
Like language itself, every poem contains at least the flicker of the individual imagination, while somehow, offering the possibility of communion. Without this possibility, the hope that we might find our way past whatever separates us and remember we belong to the earth and must together act to save it, it is no exaggeration to say that as a species we are doomed.
The poet’s sense of Armageddon is not hyperbolic—rather appropriate—but here I hope to qualify that foreboding with a thought from Whitman’s preface: “the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors…but always most in the common people.” It’s not enough, and it’s never been enough; what should we expect from poems? In “Poem for Harm,” writing about the lineage of Whitman—the inability to reconcile the ubiquitous love of Leaves of Grass with the poet’s documented racism—Zapruder concludes with these lines:
but what poison
can you drink and live
is the question I ask
in the few moments I have
before my son
lying in bed singing
about feeling like a volcano
slams open the door
of everyone to be loved
Father’s Day wants to move beyond sentiment and gesture—it’s not enough, and that’s the problem with the metaphor of markings on a page—urging its readers to think about what we can learn from poetry, which begins as markings on the page, then sounds in our voices, then figurative thought in our daily, and therefore political, lives.
What threatens the genius of the common people—our language, our speech—what threatens poetry itself, is the manipulation of our language through our speech, that rhetorical misdirection: the magician’s assistant walking across the stage. Frost famously advocated for the education of poetry, of metaphor, for those who might not otherwise acknowledge the degree that figurative thought shapes our lives: “What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere.” This anxiety debunking the ease with which one moves through a well-crafted metaphor, it’s one of rhetorical manipulation. To be a good poet, I think, one must not only be able to easily rest “at home in the metaphor,” their own metaphor and those that precede their lines, but to perpetually live in the anxiety of semantic and figurative perception. Zapruder’s music guides me through whatever anxiety I feel when I’m not sure I’ve understood something correctly, with reasons clarified in the title poem: “we all know / merely to survive / this totally / survivable life / is not enough.”
I trust Zapruder enough to have fun with him, to indulge his goofy jokes and his discursive thinking: neither belie his musical dexterity. I trust Zapruder to teach me how to avoid the rhetoric that might distract me from what we’re thinking about together in his sounds. His lines are not innovative, they do not invent—they’re sometimes too reminiscent of Merwin at his best, musically, or Tate at his most clever, tonally—but to my mind, that’s the point. Father’s Day is a community of teachers, sons, poets, partners—a book praising lineage, and a book that tries to reconcile the problems with praising lineage. Zapruder’s poems, with their attention to the music of speech, give readers the chance to enjoy these inflections, to say hello to everyone in the poet’s small town. What meaning can be made from these relationships, what meaning can be made from these relationships that change our understanding of metaphor, what metaphor can be made to change our relationship to our small towns? There’s nothing inventive here, mostly because there’s nothing apparent to invent yet. Right now, I’d rather walk around and listen to all the familiar voices of people I love.