Douglas Kearney: Patter

Review by Cait Turner

(Red Hen Press, 2014)

It’s fitting that Douglas Kearney chooses to title his most recent innovative assemblage of language Patter. The award-winning poet’s latest collection fits every dictionary definition of the word. These pieces “move with quick, light, softly audible steps” as much as they contain “the jargon or cant of any class” or “amusing lines delivered rapidly to inform or entertain.” In Patter, Kearney’s third full-length collection, opposites don’t attract so much as they ironically cohere.

“I love your body / I hate it,” declares the speaker of the poem, “Sonnet Done Red,” addressing both the would-be-mother of his miscarried baby as well as himself. Kearney’s innovative sense of aesthetics is what makes the amalgamation of fused opposites found in Patter so appealing. Birth/death, male/female, and high/low culture vivisect each other via both form and content—Kearney’s words bleed into one another and tumble onto the margins of the page like ink let loose from a blotter. In one piece, structured as a series of formal application letters, Darth Vader and King Laois, paters familias of mythic children Luke Skywalker and Oedipus the King, compete against each other for the title of Father of The Year.

Kearney takes bar jokes seriously as aesthetic structures and aesthetic structures seriously as bar jokes. Reality TV, minstrel shows, Motown lyrics, children’s games, literary allusions from Ralph Ellison to Dr. Seuss, ‘70s-era folk tunes, Greek History, baby talk, pillow talk, racial histories, and family tragedies converge sonically and textually like a hill of fire ants stinging their meaning onto Kearney’s blazing pages.

Kearney splits Patter into five experimental sections concerning fathers, miscarriages, children, sex, and family. He bookends these sections with the more personal, almost confessional, and (surprisingly, for Kearney) traditionally structured pieces, “The Pool, 1988,” and “New Parents.” In the opening poem, “The Pool, 1998,” the speaker remembers his own adolescent yearnings, “time whipping them on” as the “first stiff hairs” of pubescence and masculinity bristle underneath his childhood fat. Patter’s final poem, “New Parents,” also explores the theme of grieving lost time or one’s own lost childhood as one might grieve their own child’s rapid growth and subsequent loss of innocence:

Choosing worries you in its mouths:
lose them to strange names and houses,
board them ever in dear freezers,
or let them thaw and spoil?

Of course, there is more than one way that life might find itself miscarried. Kearney knows that this holds especially true for black lives in hyper-racialized America. As is the case in much of Kearney’s earlier work, the fractured verse and stratified textual layout of his form belies the psychological and racial complexities of his content. “History has a way,” Kearney states in, “THANK YOU BUT PLEASE DON’T BUY MY CHILDREN CLOTHES WITH MONKEYS ON THEM,” “it do what it do.” In this heartbreakingly funny poem, the theoretical trope of the signifying monkey is, in Kearney’s typically complex versification, “re-tailed” as a metonym for black babyhood. As recent police shootings of unarmed black children as young as twelve have shown, structurally racist practices in America construct black personhood as nothing more than “Lil Monkey’s smiling lil monkeys climbing / lil monkeys’ hands all murder sopped!”

Similarly in “baby named, booked,” the speaker deftly and subtly parallels the joy of giving birth with horrific knowledge of the “dual citizenship” his child faces in America as both perpetual Other and premature adult in the eyes of the criminal justice system. “The future?” the speaker shrugs, “‘nigger’ ain’t maybe gaveled in that muscly court.” As always, Kearney deftly utilizes epithets not only to shock, but to keep his readers aware that they exist inside the society responsible for such language. For example, the terse poem “Word Hunt” sets adjectives like “intelligent,” “friendly,” “worthy,” “generous,” and “respectable” against a jumble of letters that, together, comprise a racial slur. It is a testament to Kearney’s poetic talent that he can turn some of the most poisonous and violent words in the English language into pointless chatter on par with the senseless babbling of children.

Conversely, Kearney also examines the racist history behind many Western children’s rhymes and television commercials in “Gaitor Bait,” where he asks, “who’s so nutty for nigger toes a la cuckoo for cocoa? Who could just east whom up?” For Kearney, this bleak knowledge of the treatment of the black body in America permeates the poet’s experience of parenthood; the speaker in “Raise” laments that “to be daddy’s” to “see my children fall.”

Patter’s most ambitious, arresting, and engaging poem is “In the End, They Were Born on TV,” wherein Kearney explicitly and intricately wrestles with the heartbreak a of miscarriage occurring amidst an American wasteland of pop-culture and the re-presentation of the American family as “people in their house on TV…the we we weren’t to be and the we we’re to be on TV.” The speaker of the poem imagines the pregnant female body as a “haunted house pregnant with haunted houses,” where the sonograms of stillborn babies are “born made of meats on TV / the doctor voilas them from the woman’s red guts.” The speaker refers to his family, post miscarriage, as “the family who failed but now might be-to-be-were good TV…we want to be good on TV.” In the absence of God, Americans worship the television; “it helps,” whispers the nameless woman suffering through a miscarriage while the world watches. “Yeah ok yes,” the speaker repeats every few stanzas, the enthusiastic affirmatives of orgasm and intercourse greyed down to the muted assent of “a family filled with ghosts.”

Kearney’s new poems are bombastic and didactic, hilarious and horrifying, and all too necessary in our current cultural atmosphere where, as Kearney puts it in “Home Shows,” the media, under the guise of reality, shows us “expectant houses gleam[ing] like new!” In reality, we live, eat, dream, think, work, fornicate, bear children, and try to try in the “crumbling home” of our American histories.