Unexpected things happen when you release a book of poems into the world. The opening poem of the collection, “Father-Son Conversation” ends with the line: “I will go on speaking to you as long as I live.” Many people have written to me to say that they paused after reading this final line, sometimes for several days, before continuing on to the other poems in this collection. To me, that was both an unexpected and understandable response.
I have my own relationship with each of these poems. The first poem in this collection tells a lot about the purpose I have found in writing poetry. That is why I put it first. The Scottish poet Andrew Philip, who also lost his first-born son, says near the end of his poem “Lullaby,” “this is the man you fathered.” Indeed, my experience with the birth and death of our son James was an initiation into fatherhood–that I was “fathered” by him, just as one might be “knighted” by a sovereign. I came away with a charge.
But how to fulfill the charge of fatherhood without a child of one’s own? This is a question I have been answering in many ways. One of those ways is poetry. James did not get to experience this world with me. One of the most difficult aspects of grief is not that he is gone, but that he is everywhere. And so, I have decided to go on “speaking” to him–about the beauty and poignance of this world–by speaking to everyone.
What began as a language for processing grief has become a language for processing the mystery and paradox of the world in which I live, and of sharing it. I experience it as a paternal act, an outlet for everything I would have wanted to show to our boy. More than going through the motions, this “speaking” to him by speaking to others, to myself, and to the world around me, is a reason to keep writing poetry. It is a way of fathering the one I am with, even when I am alone. And that is something that I know will go on–as long as I live.