There’s a lot to be observed and lamented in the daily lives of young children. In his new poetry collection, Zero to Three, F. Douglas Brown proves that little stories readily emerge from the details of the developmentally crucial first few years of life. An additional effect of raising families, and one perhaps less talked about, is the transition adults go through when becoming parents. Childbirth, naming a child, sleep challenges, disciplining, and caring for them when they’re sick are all obstacles parents face and Brown puts the truth on the page when conveying a parent’s new role and how their old ones may change.
While the poems in Zero to Three drift seamlessly between the roles of husband, father, and son, the rockier challenges parents face come through in the individual poems. The first few pieces orchestrate the various events surrounding childbirth, from the onset of labor to delivery to naming the child. It’s refreshing to get a father’s perspective on subjects typically covered in poetry by women. In “Circumstance” Brown narrates the birth of his first son:
My hands can only trap the dirt – Your mother knows
The elements of order – Her body a vessel with two captains:
Arms and eyes – Waist and neck – Head and hair –
Hers and yours – What is shared is the ability to breathe –
Unbutton the body and take out another –
Your body, like a clot in her body –
The father’s new role is quickly forced upon him later in the poem, when he notices his wife’s blood loss after she delivers their child but “can’t see because I am holding you – / I am holding you – / And I am holding you.” The repetition of these lines brings a stark realization to the picture, the overwhelming notion of a new priority standing in front of his previous commitments.
From the instant attachment to his son, Brown turns to a fierce love for his daughter. In “Dear Defiance,” he wishes for her to one day “stand up / To your brother and if need be, punch him / In the face or last resort, the ding-ding,” so as to showcase her “surge of feminine power.” In this piece are Brown’s honest, visceral reactions to raising a daughter, the celebratory way in which he speaks of her power and urges her to use it against her brother—his other child—if she feels it necessary. In “Litany,” this power is seen emerging, which causes Brown to reflect on the changes in his role as his daughter grows older:
Cooking a dish of holidays
Accompanying a well-oiled hunger
Saving the best for your brother but taking it
back at the last second
Reading the rights to a recipe for Brussels sprouts
Sugaring the mini mustard cabbages with, “I’ll try it dad.”
Getting too old to pick her wardrobe
Getting too old to pick her up
Getting too old for baby talk’s rattling condescension
Speaking more like a pirate than princess, more queen
The book’s third section highlights Brown’s parents and his role as a son—things he arguably perceives in a new or deeper way after becoming a parent himself. In “Portraits,” Brown appears surprised to see, in a picture of his mother, that, “The things of dailiness, damp laundry or / Dishes, are nowhere to be found,” and, “Her cigarette and wine all say: Having fun / Not: I was pregnant with you.” It is perhaps the case that, having experienced firsthand the never-ending, exhausting work of raising small children, Brown expects a picture of his mother looking more weary and worn. But seeing an image countering that assumption allows him to see her in a role other than his mother.
Brown also speaks often of his father in these poems, mostly paying homage to his strong work ethic and wisdom, in poems like “These Dead Days”:
His boot strapping do-it-all
Tone, volume turned up to 10
So I can get up early and off to work
His Southern manners
Singing no nonsense
His Folgers, his Palmolive
And his Clorox panacea
Will get me out of trouble
When I need it to
The wisdom has the practicality
Of tea and the know-it-all of a path
Deep in the woods
Again, many of these poems speak in the voice of a child-become-parent with a newfound awareness of the sacrifices and strife that come with raising children. “What Did I Know” tells of the struggles Brown’s father faced while trying to work, raising a family, and taking care of his wife suffering from Alzheimer’s. When his father claims Brown knows nothing of sacrifice, Brown now seems to agree, alluding to his “bumming five bucks from my dad. My hungry hand, / illiterate to the TV in the backroom / comforting the silence of this meal.” Brown’s honesty doesn’t come from regret for his actions, but from a desire to convey his appreciation for his parents’ hard work, especially now that he is a father himself and knows the difficulties of raising and supporting a family.
Perhaps what strings together the poems in Zero to Three so effortlessly is the beat and soundtrack to which they’re often set. Brown appreciates many genres of music, from James Brown, to more current R&B groups, to pop songs featured on the television show Glee. “Body Stubborn,” which is a Bop (three stanzas with a refrain between each) in three sections, best highlights the musicality in the book. It borrows lyrics from Arcade Fire, A Tribe Called Quest, and James Brown to tell narratives from Brown’s son, daughter, and father. The three parts are dispersed throughout the book, rhythmically transitioning between generations of a family.
Other musical references feature looser muses, like “Hit Me Ghazal,” a poem about child discipline that takes odd inspiration from a Glee episode featuring the Britney Spears song, “…Baby, One More Time.” A nod to the song seems unnecessary, in this case, as the poem (a side-by-side contrast between the way Brown was disciplined as a child and the way he disciplines his own decades later) stands strong and separate from the pop culture reference that prompted it.
The broader message of the musicality in these poems seems to hint at taking things in stride, no matter how challenging or painful they may be, along with the reminder that families contain many diverse personalities that must work together to succeed. From the hectic blur of family dynamics amidst raising young children, F. Douglas Brown’s Zero to Three reminds us there is much to learn about what shapes parents into better people.