We did not fear the father as the barber who stood
like a general in a white jacket with a green visor cap . . . // . . .
We did not fear our father until he stooped in the dark.
(“We Did Not Fear the Father”)
As an entity, We Did Not Fear the Father might be summed up as a collection whose concern is limits: the limits of history, of form, of the collective and the personal. Read in chronological order, the poems become increasingly longer, denser, and more assertive as time bears down on the poet, as the liminal spaces of a lifetime shift and change. If the purpose of a ‘selected’ work is meant to give a sense of the best of a poet’s career up through present day, We Did Not Fear the Father achieves its goal—and then some. This collection gives one the sense of a life lived in poetry.
“This is the clock of boundaries,” the opening poem in the book announces, “marking its descent as its final seconds / pass into history and without pause / we harm what it tells us to harm” (“The Town Clock Burning”). The poems selected from this first book inquire about history in the broadest sense, history as our collective inheritance. After all, “we are children of circumstance, slave ships and reckless stars” (“Race War”). On the other hand, the poems from Darvil, Fort’s second book, are formally different from the first. A self-declared “prose-poem sequence” these poems mark the passage of time for the poet. The sense of a sharpening of poetics can already be felt. In Darvil the poet begins to cull the poems into a more personal shape. The poems are arguably more specific, more grounded in a real person’s experience: “on this day he begins to teach his children to recognize no state no war no / bargain in the rib crackling head snapping jargon thrown down from the men of / war and fame” (“XXXXVI Darvil and the 4th of July”).
By the third selection, history—specifically the history of African Americans—begins to collapse into the personal history of the poet. Poems such as “Frankenstein Was a Negro,” “T.S. Eliot Was a Negro,” and “Poem for the Mad” embody this examination of the boundary between the personal versus the collective. These three poems use repeated phrases (and even titles, as the first two poems indicate) to further illustrate the limits of historical reality. By the fourth selection, “As the Lilac Burned the Laurel Grew,” the reader becomes aware of yet another set of limits working within the collection; that is, the limits of form. The title poem of this selection is a villanelle, one of the many forms Fort uses in the collection. He is, clearly, a virtuoso of craft, moving effortlessly from sonnets, to prose poems, to villanelles, to sestinas, elegies and haiku, to name a few. Addressing the liminal through form seems an obvious choice, but, unlike meditations on history or his biological father, Fort uses form in this collection as a way to push back against the liminal. Fort’s many and varied forms stretch poetry to its limits. What other forms might the poems in this collection take, the reader wonders. In “New Poems” Fort drops the barrier between speaker and poet altogether, writing about his two daughters and the deaths of his wife Wendy and his brother Kenny. These poems are intimate, specific and wildly beautiful. It is no coincidence they are at the very center of the book, the heart of the collection.
The title poem of Charles Fort’s new and selected poems, situated unexpectedly in the second half of the collection, provides a deeply autobiographical lens through which to read all of the poetry in We Did Not Fear the Father. The individual lineage of the speaker is made explicit in this poem, a poem that works as a sort of bridge between earlier work and newer poems in the collection. The narrative context is that of a real father who worked as a barber, a landlord, a factory worker; one the reader has come to know well through the poems. The limits keep being raised in this poem, and are what seem to be most at stake for the speaker. The hinge of the word ‘until’ denotes such a limit. Sure, “we did not fear the father as landlord in our three-story tenement / who took charge of four apartments and the attic dwellers,” but by the next stanza “we did not fear the father until he entered the tomb of noise . . . // . . . our father. . . stooped in the dark.” What began as negation has become fear realized for the speaker.
As creative writing teachers are prone to say: in the particular we find the universal. How true this feels in Fort’s work, particularly in his title poem. Here “we” remember the father alongside the poet/speaker, and “we” are invited to do so with open arms. The poem, too, is a meditation on fatherhood for a poet who earlier in the collection became a father himself. Fort seems to be questioning just what marks the distinction between the public and the private, between the collective and the individual. The final poem in the collection is a summary of all that has come before it, all that history, public and private, all that formal variety in which the space any poem is given is stretched as far as possible. It is a poem worth reading in full:
Hollow Ground #2
Here at the quiet limit of the world
they found the wingless sweetbird
and unburied the Atlas of Eros.
They fed the bird rare pearls until it sang.
There were no graves for the wounded men
sent to war in search of heaven’s border
and the one spoiled gift of salvation.
They disappeared into the little wood.
They heard the chime in the dirt cellar
and saw the glass chalice fall apart
as the animals groaned in their stalls
until chaumeau fog passed over them.
Here at the quiet limit of the world
two daughters in their winter coats
danced without music or men
without history in their eyes.