Patter
Douglas Kearney

Red Hen Press, 2014

Douglas Kearney’s third collection, Patter, is unflinchingly personal, an account of fatherhood and fear, miscarriage and birth, expectation and indeterminacy, told (in major part) through Kearney’s signature, visual poetics. Kearney’s poems continue to suggest that difficult topics demand something more than mere poetic language. Readers familiar with Kearney’s previous collections will identify a return to form, which, at its best, deftly balances a sense of textual totality with sharp visual and structural discovery.

Patter opens by re-imagining the paternal vulnerabilities of various historical and/or fictional fathers from Titus Andronicus to every hard rapper’s dad. Kearney’s poems incorporate a variety of techniques and frames, including Cartesian planes, fractured lines and volatile typeface, as well as irreverent, “received” documents (such as Darth Vader’s self-nominating form for Father of the Year). Kearney employs formal invention to interrogate the fears and intentions of fatherhood itself:

                     daddies! on the playground, hell of a Wednesday

                     these days, burn. I used to [MUTTER. . .].

I should’ve. I will! this! is what we do lovely, mothers

and you?

and you?

and you?

Throughout, Kearney’s inventiveness meets the challenges of his shifting subject matter. In the poem, “The Miscarriage: A Sunday Funny,” twelve boxes are grouped three by four, each containing the words, “woman” and “bed.” Through textual bleeding, box-by-box, the final grouping transforms, mimetically, into the elemental: “woman blood”. In “The Miscarriage: A Poetic Form,” a diagrammatical formal logic becomes a topography of loss: “internal rhyme (slant) // (volta) // internal rhyme (broken).” In both, Kearny utilizes non-traditional means to register a deep, emotional cognition.

Patter establishes Kearney as a seasoned and, often, humorous curator of heightened states, guiding his reader through his own ambivalence toward the corporeal (“I love your body. I hate it.”). Kearney’s interrogation of fatherhood extends to his own complex, discordant fears as he marches toward productive destiny—whether the body will fail or succeed and what awaits a Black child that survives pregnancy to enter the world. In “baby named, booked,” Kearney dithers and deconstructs: “and not yet missy nor mister mariney nor tar // civilly nor banger sissy nor breeder the future?”

In the end, Kearney’s poems suggest sympathy, and even identity, between our ability to risk loss in our personal lives and artistic risk: both marked by fear and anxiety but fueled by the promise of a production at once selfless and deeply personal.