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Book Review: 'Telling My Father' by James Crews


Published November 8, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 9, 2017 at 10:29 a.m.

Telling My Father by James Crews, Southeast Missouri State University Press, 68 pages. $15.
  • Telling My Father by James Crews, Southeast Missouri State University Press, 68 pages. $15.

In the early 2000s, just as cellphones became ubiquitous, I inadvertently overheard my seatmate on a train tell his father he was gay. "Dad, Frank is not just my best friend," the stranger said into his phone. Inches away, I pretended to be engrossed in my book, but my whole body tensed, anticipating the father's response. Readers of Shaftsbury poet James Crews' second collection, Telling My Father, may find themselves bracing for a similar pivotal moment.

Crews edits poetry and nonfiction for Brattleboro's Green Writers Press and has published in journals such as Ploughshares and the New Republic; his first collection, The Book of What Stays, won the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize.

At the outset of this spare and careful volume, which won Southeast Missouri State University's Cowles Poetry Prize, readers receive numerous cues that Telling My Father is about, among other things, men loving men, in familial and sensual ways. While the title posits a three-word mission, the cover features an archival photograph of the author as a toddler cuddling with his father. The book is dedicated to the poet's deceased namesake parent, James Crews Sr., and a third of its 47 poems invoke him, chart this father-son relationship, or both.

The book opens with a poem describing the nature of human desire, regardless of sexual orientation. "Human Being" acknowledges our wants and needs and the arduous, often slippery roads we traverse to satiate them.

Then, over poems that follow, the poet introduces us to his beloved dad. Readers meet the patriarch "who smells of sweat and tobacco" ("Chore") and preserves jars of heirloom tomatoes ("My Father Asks for One Last Thing"). Crews Sr. teaches his son the "language of manhood ... Phillips head, needle nose, catalytic converter" and "gets homemade tattoos of lightning on his bicep." He has "grease-black hands" and can "scrape a deer skull clean" ("Halfway-Heaven"); he craves the salt and fat of Big Macs ("Strict Diet").

Later, in one of this eloquent collection's most unforgettable poems, Crews demonstrates everything the poet risks by telling his father he's gay. "The Inheritance" portrays Crews' father, then a young man, visiting the park near St. Louis where "men went for other men." There he fields advances from inquisitive males who say, "Hey Baby, running a finger / along my father's arm, tracing the new tattoo." The father responds by flicking out his knife and jabbing it in their direction. Then he "guns his engine" and chases the gay men off with his car. It's this same inherited "bone handle[d]," "rusted but still sharp switchblade" that the poet holds, without condemnation, at the end of the poem.

The poem that follows, "Elegy for Faces in a Nightclub, East St. Louis," portrays the speaker's awakening desire for a "wisp thin boy from Elgin, Illinois." At that point, this reader grew uneasy, fearing that the father's paternal love, insinuated in the earlier poems, might not transcend his prejudice against the son's sexual orientation. We won't divulge here how Crews handles the "reveal," only say that what his poems do so well is catalog the moments when fallible humans are good to one another.

That goodness might manifest in a son's ability to invoke his father's homophobic past with compassion. It might show in a chronicle of actions such as the father's setting out a glass of orange juice for his son's return from a gay nightclub at dawn. Or in the massage the son gives the father during his final days of a terminal illness. Or, on yet another occasion, when two men make noise-filled love in the apartment above a subway.

In this excerpt from "What Goes On," Crews turns the music of love-making into lilting lyrics. This is one of the few poems in the book in which he overtly uses rhyme, repeating words and vowel sounds to mimic the lovers' closeness:

The flame's the same in each of us

though it is not eternal

just as I am not eternal

no matter how permanent I feel

when lying next to my lover

and leaning close before bed

to leave a kiss as a kind of seal

on his lips, to prove that we are real

and I feel and fall and try to fit

ourselves imperfectly back together.

If much of Telling My Father is concerned with the love for father and for lover, love for nature is the third theme of this four-part collection. Sections II, III and IV are sprinkled with straight-up nature poems that exemplify a reverence for creatures residing beyond Crews' more urban settings.

Poems with settings such as "Crater Lake" and "Salmon River Estuary, First Light" are full of lovely observations — "the glance and swoop of heron" and water's "etched set of ripples in the slick sand," respectively. But Crews is at his best when his poems chart the more complex intersections of wild and domestic.

For example, "Message" rings (more) true when it illustrates not only the love Crews feels for nature but the affair he's simultaneously carrying on with technology. Even as the poet notices the "heron splashed up from the pond" and "bullfrogs beginning to thrum," the chirping of the phone in his pocket compels his attention. Unable to resist, he takes it out, "tapping its screen / aglow."

Crews' attunement to the world beyond nature — the supernatural — is another of the book's luminous strengths. The volume contains a handful of "visitation poems," in which people manage to be good to each other even after they've ceased to be people.

Among the best of these is "Visitation on Telegraph Road" toward the end of the book, which begins, "My dead father came back to me / the night I wrecked my pick up." Lest readers brace themselves for a far-fetched ghost story, Crews' plainspoken narration offers assurance: "No gauzy white sheets, no face afloat / in the sleet blowing through / the broken windshield — I just knew / he was there in the seat next to me."

Having described his crash on a slippery road, Crews concludes his poem with another pivotal father-son moment. When the speaker, who has a gashed head and cracked ribs, seems on the verge of joining his father in the beyond, the ghost-father's steadying presence keeps him from slipping into oblivion, with help from the now-ubiquitous cellphone. "I dialed 911," Crews writes "...but knew / as soon as I heard that ringing, I was / back in the world, and he was not."

From Telling My Father: "How Light Leaves"

Light leaves this summer day

the way it leaves the eyes,

not all at once, but by slow degrees,

reaching through the blinds,

touching the tabletop and turning

the glass of water into fuel,

making it burn before dropping

behind poplars and glancing

one last time through leaves

now shimmering, flickering out.

The light left my father's eyes

like that, until his look became

a darkened glass behind which

I knew he was still awake,

but lying alone now, waiting

for a knock at the door, and then

the light footsteps of someone

coming for him.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Tough Calls"