Patter by Douglas Kearney

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Douglas Kearney’s third book, Patter, uses fracture, fragment, textual abrasion, repetition, and form to cross-examine marriage, miscarriage, babies, and infertility. Endlessly inventive, Kearney’s work uses a couple’s anguish to cut, divide, vivisect, and re-imagine the text and the act of creation to wonder why: why infertility? why miscarriage? why me?

Patter means “lingo,” “speechifying,” but also “the presence of young children, or the expectation of the birth of a child,” e.g. “pattering,” as in Longfellow’s Tales of the Wayside Inn, “I hear in the chamber above me / The patter of little feet, / The sound of a door that is opened, / And voices soft and sweet.” Longfellow happens to be one of the most forgettable poets in English, but here Kearney re-imagines him ironically. I would gladly trade all of Longfellow for one additional Kearney poem.

Patter is immersed in the waters of popular culture; of his wildly inventive uses of forms and space, there are intimations of silent films, comic books, bar jokes, euphemisms, applications, the Bible, hip hop, nursery rhymes, minstrelsy, word searches, and others. One hinge that moves effectively via many of these forms is the contradictory emotion the speaker has towards his wife since the miscarriage: I love your body / I hate it. The speaker here acts cruelly toward the woman to absolve his guilt; the speaker’s rage and frustration is a two-step: the left says attraction and the right says repulsion.

With seemingly effortless kneading of received and invented forms, Kearney also reflects the fractured self as father in various guises: Darth Vader, Abraham, Joe Jackson of the Jackson Family, Jim Trueblood of Invisible Man, Noah, and Daddies on Playgrounds. One of the most disturbing surprises of becoming a father is that one is confronted face-to-face with one’s own father—his faults, his mistakes, his judgments. The new father hopefully won’t repeat the same mistakes, but will likely make new ones.

The most striking aspect of Kearney’s style is his use of font and typefaces—often with text blurring into itself—to do, as Marinetti said of the Italian Futurists: “to change methods, go down in the street, seize power in all the theatres, and introduce the fisticuff into the war of art.” (Marinetti, “The Caffeine of Europe”) Kearney owes much to Futurism, especially their idea “that movement and light destroy the materiality of bodies.” (“Umberto Boccioni, “Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto”) Because Futurism is more than 100 years old and is associated with war and Italian fascism, and all that that implies, it seems ironic to cast so much of Patter in those lights.

Much of Kearney’s uses of these texts rubbing against each other serve as stage directions, rapid changes in tone and speakers’ voices, or as a call-and-response mode of blues form. Kearney is a dynamic performer, and his poems give a quick sense of what those performances entail.

These Futurist text-fields are engaging and full of movement and energy, yet they appear to me like gimmicks, and especially lose clarity when compared with his real writing; that is, writing and not playing with the Font menu. For example, a long series of nine-line poems—these evoke the phantom nine months of a miscarried pregnancy—are linked to fragments of an essay on fable by Carl Phillips. These serve as a foil and a kind of wisdom to the poems, which are drenched in sorrow and wonder. Kearney’s word play and facility with language is, in fact, stunning: “jury rigging till taking on, you founder, warping like oaken plank in dank ocean”; “I nose the dark nursery, belly for my dick spurting ink like shit”; “I’m down / the street’s dividing line, my nose busted / with cumin, menudos, cinnamon.” There are few books of poems that wrangle with personal tragedy in as visceral and muscled a way as Patter does.

A serious question for readers of this book is why, with so many speakers from various corners of consciousness and civilization, does the woman not get her voice? For example, in “The Miscarriage: A Sunday Funny,” the word “woman” is in a square behind “bed,” and this “bed” slowly morphs into “blood.” Natural death of unborn humans is a tragedy, not only for the woman; but for her it is a physical tragedy as well. Much of Patter treats this as an ironic question: “but do I hate to love your body / or do I hate your body / or do I hate “I love your body” / or do I love hating your body / or do I love your body to hate it”…. These questions are unfertilized, as it were, never getting their answers.

The most ambitious poem here is called “In the End, They Were Born on TV.” It disrupts the quiet, domestic scene with the fiction of what we consume as “reality TV.” Seething with anger, and despair for the unborn baby, the poem is a perfect epitaph for our self-destructive age: “but before it was horrible wasn’t it must have been. please tell me / about the miscarriage for I don’t know how not to be telling / and the dog hushed still and still and still.” The word “still” meaning, “not moving,” “not carbonated,” “quiet,” but also “even,” “even then,” “nevertheless,” and “stillborn.”

Patter uses the forces of poetry to heal ill will, the anonymous tortures nature throws at us, and it uses language—mashes, trashes, erases language—to make its points. “Patter’s” root is a Middle English word meaning “pray mechanically.” Imagine the poet sorting through words, massaging the blood in the body, knowing that there is nothing rather than something, an infant. Pain is best used in Patter to sooth language into itself.

Sean Singer’s first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He has also published two chapbooks, Passport and Keep Right On Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water, both with Beard of Bees Press and is the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has recently appeared in Memorious, Pleiades, Souwester, Iowa Review, New England Review, and Salmagundi. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers-Newark. He lives in Harlem, New York City. More from this author →