What’s the next best thing to reading a great poem? Asking the poet what s/he meant by it. This week, a wonderful poem in tribute to fathers by John Pass, winner of the 2006 Governor General's Award for English Poetry. Among other things I wanted to know what inspired the poem “Done With Begetting, Done” and how Pass uses form to reveal content. First, here’s the poem:
Done With Begetting, Done
Breathless, molten, motionless, pressed
And she would be, knowing
within hours, be getting
for the cooling earth, its oxygen.
He wants his wife back however obtuse
to his specific
appetite, recipe, body part
of the week
diffuse in her at it again and again
pulled back and holding and
rolling the condom on that way into
essence, impossible licks simultaneous
of underarm, tongue-tip, pearl
of clitoris, exquisite bumping
at it all in bloom, pink cloud, his world
on auto-pilot, prime mover a fiend
for eccentric recreation, words
made flesh. Hers
crash through the house in guises
human, hot for cartoons, pancakes
sweetness in the usual places, approaches
in the shadowy doorway:
“Don’t be afraid. Same place
as always. Snakes? Nooo. Sleep now
or come to bed with me
and Dad awhile. But no squirming.”
(from Radical Innocence, Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, BC, 1994)
This poem is a lovely, honest description of a man’s feelings around his wife’s pregnancy. It’s also a little unsettling in its attitude towards her and the kids. Talk a little about how the poem came about.
The poem’s subject is of a man’s feelings around fatherhood generally, and around the adjustments parenthood impels within marriage. The book from which this poem is taken, Radical Innocence, is constructed upon a motif poem acting as table of contents which offers, line by line, titles for each of the poems within the book-length sequence. Here are three stanzas from that fifteen stanza motif poem, their lines (i.e. the titles of adjacent poems) leading in and out of “Done With Begetting, Done”:
of the human to the last word
of the least and loneliest---father
done with begetting, done
with all but the power
of the pregnant ether, refuge
of a world once various and fluid
The book is a personal engagement of Christian cosmology by a non-Christian, without the directives of faith, but still respectful of Christianity’s profound cultural influences. This accounts for the biblical vocabulary, most significantly the “begetting” of the Old Testament, those lists that are emblematic of patriarchy---about lineage, not life.
The wife in the poem turns the tables on that perspective, possessing the essential generative force that is the poem’s movement, too. The husband is disoriented, peripheral, a little desperate, a little pathetic, somewhat comic, and, by not too much of a stretch I think, implicates the father/deity notion (the absent, abstract, theoretically all powerful sky-god) in the unbalanced absurdity of his desire, his downshift from Creation to recreation, from impregnator (prime mover!) to a guy obsessed with compensatory sexual impossibilities, clever with words . ..
Meanwhile, here on earth, the named/nameless real kids are hungry for pancakes, cartoons and the usual parental attentions/consolations, accommodated mostly by their mother.
You’ve written elsewhere that you learned early as a poet to be patient, to allow images and ideas to cohere gradually. Part of this, you said, “was mistrust of the excitement of inspiration”. Is some of that mistrust at work here?
My mistrust of the excitement of inspiration developed in the 1980’s when I began to feel that I wanted to move beyond lyric occasional verse and the lyric sequences I’d been writing up to that point. It didn’t develop with Radical Innocence and is not really a factor in “Done With Begetting, Done” except insofar as the larger framework of the At Large quartet of books (of which Radical Innocence is the second) employed formal ways of governing and enhancing the lyric impulse, of adding complexity, nuance and depth to the inspirational rush.
In “Done With Begetting, Done” the excitement of inspiration is evident for me in the lyric quickness, the breathlessness, the urgency and demands of male desire and female nurture. If the poem also possesses the depth I hope it has that was accomplished in the extended, meditative process of the book’s construction alluded to above, in the formal, somewhat arbitrary element of the motif poem guiding the whole, disciplining and focusing the individual poems. Also, the time between the writing of that motif “template” and the writing of the individual poems in the book made space for puzzlement and contemplation of ideas and processes the lyric instances of inspiration were calling up. Lyric is the dominant form of contemporary verse. I didn’t want to lose its energy and attractiveness to readers, but I wanted to build something more from it than lyric alone can usually accomplish.
You use irregular lines, hard indents and fragments more than most poets I know. Here, that approach is a little more restrained, and helps, I believe, to support the lovely denouement by poem’s end. Am I right about that? Do you marry your style or structure to a particular effect?
Yes, form dances with content tirelessly, though not always intentionally. The phrasing of this poem’s title, for example, the bracketing “Done”, emphasizes the finality (and exasperation) of the transition couples make when deciding they’ve had the children they intended to have, while simultaneously emphasizing the astonishing, world-altering accomplishment, the remarkable “doneness” of having a family. I couldn’t have known the word would have that dual emphasis when I wrote the motif poem, but having the title phrased that way no doubt pushed “Done With Begetting, Done” down both those sign-posted paths. This sort of happy accident is what I love about poetry, as poet and reader, especially as a reader of my own poems years later. They can still surprise me!
The most striking formal effect for me within this poem, the one that pleases me the most reading it today, is the use and placement of the possessive pronoun “Hers”. It’s the only capitalized pronoun or noun except for “He”, “Snakes” and “Dad”. Those help to give away the poem’s sad/playful aside on Christian patriarchy. But the “Hers” is central, pivotal. Firstly it plays to the line it’s on; the flesh “He” most wants made from words (from the words of the poem, for example . . .) is “Hers”. (By the way, despite their insistence upon this tenet of faith Judeo/Christian religions most emphatically perform the antithetical transformation: the flesh made word).
Secondly, as the first word and subject of the sentence opening the following stanza (“Hers// crash through the house in guises/human . . “) the “Hers” points to her possession of the literal words (the “named ones”) made flesh; the kids racing around the house way too early on a weekend morning are the realization of her prophetic knowledge, her surety re pregnancy from the poem’s beginning. This last play on the word/flesh dichotomy has a dimension for me not explicitly available to readers but familiar enough; the woman in the poem is modeled upon one who gave up, at least temporarily, her writing to the demands of motherhood: her words made flesh. She has the last say anyway, dispelling (with a just to be sure disciplinary afterthought directed at Dad as much as to the kids) that dark dream about snakes.