Review by Sara E. Lamers
MY FATHER SAYS GRACE
by Donald Platt
The University of Arkansas Press, McIlroy House, 201 Ozark Avenue, Fayetteville, AR 72701; ISBN-13: 978-1-55728-837-0, 2007, 95 pp, paper, $16.00
In poetry, there are subjects which may tempt a writer to traverse into the dangerous territory of cliche. Its snare can be difficult to avoid. Love is one such subject, so is faith and religion. Death is another. Yet the poems in Donald Platt's My Father Says Grace find a way into such well-traveled tropes that is anything but ordinary and far from expected. From a father's stroke, to a mother-in-law's decline into lung cancer, even to a brother whose Down's Syndrome becomes a kind of unraveling, these poems wade unabashedly into the discomfort, into the deterioration of both mind and body in a manner that is impassioned, painstakingly real, and beautifully loving.
At the center of this brilliant collection is the speaker's father who, despite his declining physical and mental health, floods the lives of those around him with small moments of pleasure while showing those around him what it means to live, to learn, and to thrive amid trial. As readers we struggle beside this speaker whose mix of joy for his own health and unblemished future and nagging guilt and sense of helplessness commingle as the father's inevitable death looms. The opening poem "Sizzling Happy Family" -- titled after a Chinese dish -- introduces the names and faces that My Father Says Grace so lovingly depicts with an apropos metaphor: here is a family, stricken with illness, with the stress of caring for one another, who are still blessed with startling gifts: moments of pure bliss such as the delight obtained from the suppleness of a "steaming platter of smells and colors / harvested from the earth / and ocean" or, in other poems, from aimlessly batting around a child's balloon, from a Galli-Curci opera that bursts forth from an antique Victrola, or from the double rainbow that floods the sky as the speaker's departs after visiting his father in a nursing home. This is a family who radiates gratitude, despite their pain and sorrow. As "Sizzling Happy Family" closes, the speaker begs his aging parents to "Order coffee and pears with rum. Have them flame it. / Don't leave the table. Not yet." This heart wrenching plea sets the stage for the poems that are to unfold in the subsequent pages, inviting us to stay, to sit, to take in the rich sustenance still to come.
What's surprising -- and often creates a troubling richness in the poems -- is the sense of familiarity with death that hovers. In "Turtle with the World on Its Back" the speaker's burden (his guilt for being alive) battles his deep desire to relish in life as he vows to "go out / in our backyard, / sit in the rusted iron lawn chair, and get good and shit-faced / under the harvest / moon" while his mother-in-law dies of lung cancer. He finds solace in the myth of the Bolivian turtle, a sandstone carving over which farmers pour tequila before offering up a prayer. As readers and witnesses we must bear the weight of death just as the speaker for whom these poems are prayers must; indeed the poems serve as prayers for mercy, for painless dying, but also prayers of joy, prayers in praise of a life and a liveliness that endures in the form of a young daughter turning cartwheels across the kitchen linoleum to teach the speaker ". . . another / way of walking / this weighted world" ("Cartwheels"). Indeed, the collection is much more than homage to the father, to his and the mother's failing health, (as well as the many other deaths that surround the speaker) but also a plea for grace, for acceptance of what is to come. What also works well is the form -- tercets whose lines vary drastically in length, with the first and third or second line wildly indented -- which mimics the unease, conveys the off-kilter instability present in many of the collection's themes. Indeed, these poems create a dizzying sense of imbalance, of that tightrope-walk-without-a-net sensation that death and dying force each of us to reckon with. The collection is not divided into sections and poems are arranged so that the father's illness ensues as the collection unfolds -- an arrangement that is fitting as the speaker bemuses life's unwinding and descent toward a stopping point.
In the end, these poems are poems of loss, yes, and perhaps a means of coping, of course, but also poems of assurance, poems of rare hope. In the final poem, as the speaker descends onto the tarmac of an Indianapolis airport, he pictures the next moment and the next: "I will walk along the moving walkway to claim my baggage and continue on / into what’s left of the late / daylight. I will follow the black-and-white signs that say to all of us travelers / not "Come unto me / all ye that travail," but only "This way to Ground Transport."
And we sigh, a little sadder, a little less innocent, less sheltered from the pain of death, a little more vulnerable and scarred, but all the more resilient and certainly grateful. All the more comforted.
Sara E Lamers' collection A City Without Trees was recently published by March Street Press. She received an MFA in Poetry from Purdue University, and her work has appeared in journals such as The MacGuffin, Ellipsis, Slant, and Hubbub. She lives in a Detroit, MI, suburb where she teaches and writes.