Patter: A Poetry Panel

Patter: A Poetry Panel

-Poems Discussed by Kendra Bartell & Jesse Saldana-


Jesse Saldana: “Kendra, your initial summation of Douglas Kearney’s Patter was “uncomfortable.” Can you expand?”

Kendra Bartell: “As a whole, I think the book honestly portrays the perspective of a man who is dealing with his and his wife’s problems with infertility. At times, however, the poems discussing his view of her body bring up a lot of intense questions about a man’s take on trying to get pregnant. Since the actuality of being pregnant rests within the woman’s body, sometimes the poems can get into a tricky position of a man describing how he feels about a woman’s body. The poet’s choices are complicated and can make readers uncomfortable. One must mitigate the presentation of the male gaze while knowing the speaker is going through the same internal questioning. What is the right way to present a husband’s perspective of his wife, his wife’s body? That being said, I think that was the point of those particular poems. An example:

I love your body. I hate it…
            choose and your body in my teeth like tongue, meat,
            if you think I bite your tongue and say “my blood”
            or how can I want the why of the way but for what
            maybe sometimes my marshmallow teeth vs. my brick tongue

Here, especially, we see the speaker complicating his initial statement about his wife’s body. We see him implicating himself at this moment. He knows that this hate towards her body isn’t necessarily for her actual physical body, but rather for the consequences it represents. The couple’s frustrated attempts to have a child create insecurities and at times, the speaker is out of control. The spiraling language of the poems depict his irritability. Despite the unease with which I read some of the poems in this collection, I think Kearney’s self-awareness is a strength, allowing him to present this story with unflinching honesty. Kearney successfully portrays many unconscious fears and anxieties that for many, lie in their subconscious.

How did you initially find the book, Jesse?”


Jesse:  “For me the subject matter of the book is: Absence. The first line of the first poem “Raise,” in the opening section, “Father of the Year,” reads: “to be daddy’s to ascend, steady, into cruelty.” It becomes clear that the father has been absent in the speaker’s life. This poem and the rest of the section translates absence into cruelty, the void leaving a mark on the speaker’s psyche. By titling each poem “Father of the Year,” Kearney, tongue-in-cheek, explores multiple cruelties of the father who could’ve been. The absence of a responsive and present father turns into the absence of a child in “Miscarriages,” the book’s second section. This absence, the father in waiting, haunts the speaker and defines the course of the book. As you pointed out, Kendra, desiring a child but being unable to conceive creates a void with which the couple must cope.

I want to consider your point because it is one of the primary tensions in the book. The climax of the situation occurs for me in “The Miscarriage: A Sunday Funny.” The poem consists of a 4×3 grid of squares, “beds,” with “woman” and “bed” imposed upon them. As one reads square by square the arrangement changes as “blood” begins to form, layered behind “bed.” by the end of this transformation, the last square reads “woman/ blood.” There is resentment here, perhaps not so much directed at the speaker’s wife, but rather, as you say, at the “consequences of the body.” In that sense, “body” signifies pregnancy and “blood” failure. This poem shatters the bed, the place of sexual intimacy.

Kendra, what do you make of this poem and Kearney’s use of humor to parse through the emotions following the couple’s miscarriage?”


Kendra: “Yes, that poem was especially moving as well as uncomfortable for me to read. I think I reacted this way because of that shift between body/pregnancy and blood/failure. But you’re right about the humor–it weaves throughout the book. Early on, there’s a two-page spread titled, “Darth Vader, King Laios (fill out their applications as, across the lobby, Genghis Khan’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” ringtone plays): Fathers of the Year.” These two entries appear handr. The sheer audacity of these lines is at first, strikingly funny, but as you read on, you see the tensions bubbling underneath: “25) Day you died? What I did killed me already.” (from King Laios). Despite this turn, we encounter humor again in the end: “27) Words of wisdom for [your son/daughter]? It’s not mother fucking; but fucking the motherfucking king.” Kearney is alluding to a well-known truth: sometimes embracing life’s absurdities is the only way to cope. Such punctuated elements of humor help tie the book together.”


Jesse:  “Your last two points take us to the third section: “It is Designed for Children,” which is driven by a darker humor–the mechanics of which are equally absurd and defeatist. Here the speaker imagines his child’s existence in the world as a black individual. The poem, “Word Hunt,” lists a number of adjectives that would be considered compliments: “intelligent, friendly industrious, kind, clean, handsome,, innocent,” etc. The letters in the actual words search are limited to “r-g-e-n-i.” The word bank lists compliments that, according to the author, are not reserved for black individuals in contemporary culture. By repeating letters in the word search that form the pejorative arising during the era of slavery, the speaker argues that black individuals remain commodified bodies. The next poem “ ‘Costco Pulls Lil Monkey’ Doll Off Shelves–KTLA News Headline,” follows this conviction:

if evil here, who speak it?
DO retail re-tell the re-tailing of–
(nobody here but us.)
history has a way IT Do what it do¿

and the next untitled poem:

[thus] picayune black babies’s history’s way
of knowing black babies is discarded
to hide its history of blacking black babies
blue as a baboon’s nose knows tails. 

The excerpts from Carl Phillips, appearing at the bottom of a number of fables that close the section provide a guide to understanding. “There is something vaguely sadistic about many fables–those that seek to instruct children, by means of fear,” Phillips writes. Kearney is addressing the odds against black youth–sadly demonstrated by the recent Michael Brown tragedy. The staggering rates of incarceration of black men, 1 in 3, and Hispanic, 1 in 6, inform the speaker’s anger and bleak outlook. Kearney purposefully pushes the reader into an uncomfortable space in “Word Hunt,” forcing readers to acknowledge the historical revisionism and culture of commodity that exists in the United States.

How do you read this section? And the closing passages?”


Kendra: “I agree. I think that Kearney is forcing readers to confront both the societal conditions that exist concerning race, as well as internal attitudes and memories. Speaking as a white reader, the poem made me sit up and listen, no matter how uncomfortable it was to see that word search using the letters “r-g-e-n-i.” The lines force a confrontation regarding privilege. We learn who has it and who doesn’t, thereby acknowledging people who are struggling and live in fear, images that lie in contrast to a more affluent existence. That’s why the dark humor is so intriguing—the lines seek and reveal commonalities between percentages of the population. Readers will come into this book with different experiences of race, racism, and power, for sure, but they can all chuckle or grimace together at those moments of absurdist humor.

In the last section titled: “In the End, They Were Born on TV,” I think the humor gets toned down just a notch. Kearney relates the final element of the personal story centering the collection. The titular poem in the section is the most memorable as it details the real life experience of Kearney and his wife on the reality show “Deliver Me.” This dramatic and over the top event echoes a crazed theatrical play at points: “iv. cut / to one-more-time-from-the-top yourself/is to ta-daaaaa breathing. The curtain drops, plush guillotine./would you talk about the miscarriage one more time? ta-daaaaa.” The poem offers a “behind-the-behind-the scenes,” and is a unique way to unmask the way reality tv cuts and pastes “reality” into drama. Through it all, we see Kearney’s mastery of language and sound, rhythm, and the line. Each section of the poem offers a slightly different twist in terms of form and voice, granting readers insight into what might have been going on as he and his wife experienced this show. At times, the voice sounds beleaguered, wanting the show to finish: “it helps to be on tv. we want to be good on tv. ok yes./to help we want to be good tv. yeah yes.” At other times, the speaker is almost prophetic: “did you know about dogs and ghosts? one barking at one’s nothing?” Kearney provides both power and vulnerability in this section, and I think he provides an incredible, moving end to the work.

Jesse, what were your impressions of the finale?”

Jesse:  “The last section I think is the most “real.” By this, I mean that the poems occur across a landscape that is outside of the reader’s head, and what more real a venue than reality television? There is a sharp language shift in this section. We lose the visual elements of the poems as lyrical elements takes over. Kearney’s titling draws attention to the spectacle that the television show is making of the couple, and as you point out, the couple’s complicity in allowing the TV crew to enter their home. “[We] chose to do the show; we had agency…but it’s stranger–our home turned into a set,” Kearney said of the experience in an interview. “I became an actor acting out a discussion of one of the worst moments of my life. The distance that created felt like I had somehow cheapened that terrible event.” Kearney’s awareness of his “agency” is clear throughout the book, but particularly in the poem you bring up. In the first section “i. good reality tv” the poem opens: “a couple wanted to be-to-be and TV wants the couple-to-be/ on TV.” I agree that Kearney’s uses doubled revisions throughout the poem to navigate the invasive experience of having his and his wife’s miscarriage broadcast on national television. Kearney thus walks the line from a willing participant to a couple who has had all semblance of privacy shattered. By the end of the poem, the camera is the arbiter of language.

please tell me about the miscarriage
            please tell me about the miscarriage
            please tell me about the miscarriage
            please tell me about the miscarriage
            the fifth take and it was horrible, that’s all.
they call them takes, again we’re robbed.

Kearney and his wife experience the same exploitation that he warns his future child about in previous sections of the book. Likewise, Kearney’s tale stands as another twisted fable in the land of “too good to be true” television. The camera turns Kearney and his wife into a commodity, the value of which rises with the drama of the story. The single-minded nature of the television crew’s approach recalls “Word Hunt,” the letters reconfigured to: “b-b-y-a-d-a-e-d.”

This is all to say that I highly recommend Patter. Kearney is a master, splitting language to work and rework prose, thereby conveying multiple meanings. Repetition, wordplay, and spatial arrangements are the primary tools of his craft, but Kearney also employs visual poetry, expressing symbols, themes, and moods. His process never seems trite or overwrought. Instead, his language and subject matter create a sense of urgency that drives the reader to finish the book. Patter should make you uncomfortable at times, but that is a sign of the power of his work, and the relevance of its linked statements about race, absence, and desire.”


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