Oct 24, 2013

Brian Teare's "Separation is the necessary condition for light": New Light on Old Fathers


In Brian Teare’s “Separation is the necessary condition for light,” the central idea and almost all the imagery and phrasing strike me as precise, original, and strong. I like them a lot. The dead father’s empty mattress and hat, the "generic" fathers fathers grouped like unnamed, undifferentiated trees (what an exceptional word “generic” is in this context), the sunset lighting them up and making them "blonde"  (why have I never thought of autumn trees as blonde? Shame on me), and the fatherless adult child as a drifting sail . . .  all of that seems precisely right. (As a temporary survivor, I don’t see myself as a sailboat-survivor gliding over treetops, but it’s a flattering image that makes a lyrical kind of sense).

I’m not sure what I think and feel about Teare's allergy to commas and other punctuation. Also, I wonder what he’s seeing that I’m missing in the alternating left and right stanzas. However, I’m open to the argument that the lack of punctuation and the staggered placement of stanzas suggest the motions of leaves in wind as well as sails gliding dreamily along, where any pause looks and feels nothing like a punctuation mark. Maybe that’s a stretch, but I can live with it.

I struggle harder with "roots / that rise to stem that rise.”  At first I heard it as the trees having flipped, their tops becoming their roots, which I was hearing as an image of death. But that doesn't help me understand the fact that the roots rise in order to "stem"—as in, prevent—another rise, maybe adult children rising toward death.
Or maybe upright trees have risen above the ground—a kind of levitation. Is that an image of immortality? When those roots "stem [squelch] that rise," are they holding the survivors in the ground as they try to rise into the air, as immortal spirits traditionally do?

In "stem," I appreciate the word play on aspects of trees and other plants. Again, we can have “stem” as squelch, as “stem the tide,” or we might hear a newer, fresher sense of “stem” as a verb—the leaves or trees are not only leaving, but also growing new stems, or “stemming.” That makes a better fit for what follows, where the autumn trees are apparently dropping leaves: “rise // to leaf his door and cornices.” To “leaf” is an exquisite image of fallen autumn foliage piling up, but I’d like to know how it develops from the two lines that precede it.

In all, however, the new and lovely features in Brian Teare’s poem more than compensate for the single speed bump caused by “rise” and “rise” and “stem.” Of the several things that draw me to the poem, the foremost might be the notion of fathers' being “generic” in the way trees in a field are generic. I've certainly seen my friends' fathers as a blurry cluster of vaguely appealing yet ordinary, un-special beings. They might be the fathers of students as they gather awkwardly but importantly in school lobbies and hallways on parents' visiting days.

Until Brian Teare's elegy, however, I failed to notice just how generic and autumnly blonde they were, even those who were important, or tried to fake importance, and how their future absence, in death, might be visualized as the empty mattress where they had lain or their now empty felt hats. 
I suspect that from here on, I’ll never see or imagine fathers in the same way, at least not as a group. And maybe the yellow-leaved woods in the fall will always be fathers as well as trees, whether I want them to or not. There’s a lot more gift than burden in that, which is what good poems give us. So in spite of one line that’s bumpy for me, I am grateful for Brian Teare’s “Separation is the necessary condition for light,” and I won’t soon forget it.

See also Bob Hicok’s masterful father poem, “O my pa-pa.”  http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/179572

I discussed it here January 2, 2010:   http://banjo52.blogspot.com/search?q=o+my+pa-pa



Pasadena Adjacent said...

I interpreted "the fatherless adult child as a drifting sail" as headstones. To much candy corn?

Interesting poem - and when I say 'interesting' I mean it as such. The way the text is placed reminds me of bricks. I've been collaborating with a poet for an out of doors installation piece. We got to talking about the idea of poems being objects. Beyond the words and their meaning. No conclusions on this side - just fodder for thought.

Anonymous said...

Powerful ending. And yes, I guess in a way, parents are a generic concept. All of them have the same name, or close to it -- Mom and Dad. Springing to life only when we're born. After mine died, I grew much more curious about them, as individuals, and have lots of questions now, finally. Too late for answers.

RuneE said...

I'm a father of four, so in some sense I could be called "generic". But it is the first time that my ageing, white hear has been called "blonde". I take that as a compliment :-)

Banjo52 said...

PA, As a borderline New Critic, I like the idea of stanzas or entire poems as bricks, or other objects. Let me think more about sails as headstones.

AH, boy, do we share that about deceased parents. There are people I could ask about mine, but maybe no one who really knew them. And even in Mayberry there's the monster question, Do I want to know the answers?

Rune, we should probably take "blonde" any way we can get it.

Jean Spitzer said...

I lie this poem. It reads like a dream, and, according to the poet's statement, it came from a dream.

Ken Mac said...

I concur with karin's sentiment. When mom passed I found about 15 old photo albums under her bed, including one holding a Nazi armband. Something dad took during the war. I have no kids, who gets all the stuff? Maybe I will have it buried with me, like an old Pharaoh!

Banjo52 said...

Jean, thanks. Yes, it is dreamlike--and that might help me with that line I struggled with.

Ken, talk about deep thoughts! Thanks for this. What about siblings? It seems a shame for such remarkable stuff to go underground forever.

Ken Mac said...

Not a fan of graffiti? I agree, most of it is horrible, if I have your take on it correctly. The "tagging" graffiti is basically gang warfare. But Banksy is different. Not only is his work clever and well executed, it's very funny! It's been great to see his stuff pop up around NY this past month.

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