by Blas Falconer
This essay is part of Poetry Northwest‘s “On Failure” series. It was also written following Falconer’s participation in the 2021 AWP panel “Beyond the Brady Bunch: Reinventing the Poem of the American Family,” and refers to the work of fellow-panelist and previous contributor to this series, Oliver de la Paz.
The Brady Bunch, which originally aired from 1969 to 1974, tells the story of the blended family of Mike Brady, the father of three boys, and Carol Martin, the mother of three girls: “All of them had hair of gold, like their mother, the youngest one in curls.” Sprawled out on the living room floor in front of the television, I wanted to live in that big house, to eat dinner with all of my brothers and sisters, to have parents in whom I could see myself, who I was, who I’d become. Each thirty-minute episode ended with a problem solved, a lesson learned, a misunderstanding understood.
As an adult, for a year, I lived two blocks from the Brady Bunch house in Los Angeles. When walking our dog one day, I explained the show’s premise to my boys, both of whom are adopted, and one of them—casually, unsurprisingly—asked what happened to the boys’ first mother and to the girls’ first father. Producer Sherwood Schwartz wanted Carol to be a divorcée, but the network objected, and her marital status was never revealed. In the very first episode, however, we learned that Mike was a widower. Bobby, the youngest son, put his mother’s picture in a drawer because he didn’t want Carol, his new stepmother, to be upset. Mike reassured his son that he didn’t want Bobby to forget his mother, and neither did Carol.
Predictably, Bobby’s first mother was never mentioned again. In fact, by season two, all the issues of adjusting as a blended family miraculously disappeared. Years later, I take some pleasure imagining the episodes that never aired. For example, imagine Bobby, unable to properly grieve, finally lashing out at Carol: You’re not my real mother. The Bradys weren’t a traditional family, whatever that means, but they could pass as one.
Growing up, I never felt like I was part of a model family, but the pressure for us to pass as one was palpable. One of two Puerto Rican families in our neighborhood, my mother often stressed that we had to do better, act better, even dress better—though I never did—to challenge whatever assumptions neighbors might have about us. And how do I even begin to address the great lengths I went to as a young, gay man to pass as straight, to pretend that I was just like my father, like my older brother, and, I figured, like every other man I knew?
When I discovered poetry, it taught me to seek clarity for the first time, really, through introspection and not from those around me. I began to question my own assumptions about gender and identity: “[I] stood / in the mirror to // consider what had begun / to change against my will. // This was my father’s razor, but / who was my father, // a man? And what / was that?” (“On Desire”). As I acknowledged my personal silence, the poems insisted that I was an equal member of that family, and that also this family was an equal member of its community: “We wrestled in / the basement, drunk, // my head pressed / hard into the coarse // blue rug, windows dark. / Upstairs, // my mother stood / at the stove. Soon, // my body seemed / to say, turning // under you. It was / 1986: the fire // at Dupont Plaza, the / Human // Immunodeficiency / Virus, the // Challenger falling in / pieces over // the Atlantic” (“Amor Fati” 58). Poetry helped me to identify and convey and honor the differences within my family, between my family and those models we were meant to live up to.
As a partner and as a father, what compels me now to write about my family is what compelled me to write those earlier poems. The particular details lead to larger questions about who we are as individuals, who we are to one another, who are we in the context of the larger world. To draw our family’s differences to the surface, in and of itself, doesn’t feel like a betrayal of our privacy. Since preschool, my children have been asked by their peers—innocently, countlessly—about their two fathers, about how we came to be a family. However, I don’t want to tell a story that isn’t mine to tell. I don’t want to write a poem that turns my children into props, our family into a spectacle. For guidance, I often seek poems about nontraditional families that draw differences to the surface, not to define someone as other, or to speak for someone else, but so that each of us can be more present. Thankfully, many poems address the rich and ever-changing dynamics of family.
Oliver de la Paz’s poem “Autism Screening Questionnaire—Speech and Language Delay” adopts a standard medical form to determine the structure of a poem about neurodiversity: “1. Did your child lose acquired speech? 2. Does your child produce unusual noises or infantile squeals? 3. Is your child’s voice louder than required?” The direct questions and the lyric responses offer insight into the child, but also into the parents: “4. Does your child speak frequent gibberish or jargon?“
To my ears it is a language. Every sound
a system: the sound for dog or boy. The moan
in his throat for water—that of a man with thirst.
The dilapidated ladder that makes a sentence
a sentence. This plosive is a verb. This liquid
a want. We make symbols of his noise.
The two voices offer two distinct tones. The fourteen questions are distant and cool. The father’s indirect answers are introspective, private. The different registers resonate with one of the poem’s central subjects, specifically the struggle between parent and child to communicate, but also how we all strain to understand one another. The formal innovation allows de la Paz to consider the family through each earnest and profoundly intimate revelation. The father speaks to himself as much as he speaks to anyone else.
In his essay “Thirty-One Tiny Failures and One Labyrinth: On Parenting and Writing,” de la Paz addresses how inherently problematic it is to write about a child, though as his poem reminds us, parents are asked, and often, to do so. In a series of rapid-fire statements, his essay sheds light on the compulsion to write about our children when our children weigh most heavily on our minds while also acknowledging the impossibility of speaking on someone else’s behalf. Here are a handful:
“We are supposed to ‘write what you know’ and what I know and have known my ten years of fatherhood is that writing what I know is hard.”
“I do not know what having total creative freedom looks like.”
“I don’t want to be the person who fixes this version of my sons to the page. This understanding keeps me awake at night.”
“I wanted to understand my sons as well as a neurotypical parent with his own limitations and his now biases can understand a neurodiverse child. I am full of flaw and misconception. I am full of error.”
“I apologize for writing about you, L. I apologize for writing about you, N.”
The final section is simply a pair of empty brackets, suggesting—what? The limitations of perspective, of language? Or does it represent what he won’t say for fear of misrepresenting his sons? Regardless, de la Paz is without words, an impasse.
Similarly, Erika Meitner’s “In Defense of the Empty Chaos Required for Adequate Preparation” conveys the struggle to understand a son. It begins with a misunderstanding:
When the (white) man at the pool says
my (black) son reminds him of his youngest and asks
how old is he, eight? I say, no, four and I am not
flattered but terrified of the implications because
in study after study the average age overestimation
for black boys exceeded four years, because black boys
are viewed as adults by white undergraduates white
police officers white suburban residents at the age of
ten they lose the protection afforded to them by
assumed childhood innocence ten ten ten my older
(white) son is ten and still struggles to tie his shoes . . .
From there, the poem spins through a series of memories and considerations, contrasting her white son’s experiences with her black son’s, reflecting on the murder of Philando Castile, citing studies that address how black boys are perceived to be older, how police violence against black children in custody is linked to the dehumanization of these children.
Technically, the poem isn’t written in one sentence, but it reads like one with its discursive style, its associative leaps, its complex syntax, its absence of periods, its parenthetical asides, its riffing and stutter. Together, the devices evoke a mother’s anxiety as she tries to understand various lenses through which multiple people perceive the world, how the world perceives her son. There is no solution to make sense of it all, no thinking ones way out, no resolution. In fact, it’s merely “adequate” and offers little consolation, but as the title suggests, the chaos is “required” for the white mother of a black child striving to know her son.
In a recent review of Sonia Greenfield’s poetry collection Letdown, Olga Livshin praises how the poems challenge the way children are often represented:
Children are often overlooked en masse by adult literature. . . . They are not often allowed to signify themselves. In Letdown, however, children are seen. They are, thus, separate, and paradoxical, and mysterious, and, often, sad. . . . And the speaker’s son is the most outstanding child, defying uniformity in ways that both aggrieve and amaze.
Like Livshin, I’m struck, reading Greenfield’s poems, by the various ways she renders family, but what intrigues me most, perhaps, is when the poems can so convincingly transport us— mother, son, readers, too—into some terrifying scene. For example, in “Women and Children First,” we find ourselves in a dystopian world, full of decay and violence. The speaker, a mother, whose child clings wide-eyed to her leg, has done all that she can for us. As a madman breaks through the fence in the back yard, she tells us we’re on our own: “Grab your / gun, Reader. Run. . . . / . . . the hordes are on the move & / from this point on you’re dead to me.” As danger approaches, the mother’s emotions are magnified and her “field of vision” narrows on her son.
Greenfield does something similar in “Why I Won’t Use the Term.” The term in question is “Asperger’s,” and the poem becomes her explanation. Within the first sentence, three short- lined quatrains, the poem imagines, by sheer bad luck, her neurodiverse son “hauled” before the Austrian eugenicist, infamously known for his involvement in the Nazi euthanasia program. The mother defends her child,
. . . Herr
doktor, I grab his
white sleeve, he can
name the stars, the chambers
of the heart. Do you see
his perfect mouth, eyes
alive as a badger? He is
not a burden, not a burden,
not a burden.
The doctor does not seem convinced, and our location is revealed:
. . . At Spiegelgrund
they caught pneumonia,
balloons of gas,
tigers by their toes,
eenie meanie miney mo,
eight hundred children
did not pass go.
In his folder it’s written
epilepsy too & a quarter
Jew. Asperger only
groomed his chosen few.
As the mother’s imagined moment and history are conflated, even the language of childhood innocence (with references to toys, to light verse, to games) and the cold, brutal language of these atrocities (pneumonia, lethal gas, eight hundred children killed) become intertwined to create a deeply disturbing tone. As with “Women and Children First,” the poet’s imagination takes us somewhere beyond our conventional domestic worlds, but after the poem is over, we realize that the worry and the fear are real.
Of course, in all of these poems, the imagination is essential: the imagined answers you might give a doctor, the multitude of lenses you might try to imagine all at once, the world imagined far from the seeming safety of our day-to-day lives. I’m reminded of my own particular struggle, one night, to write about my son’s adoption. After hours and hours of failed attempts, I stood up from desk, defeated, to take a walk through the neighborhood. I passed an enormous white blossom dangling from the edge of a long branch. I stopped, struck by its brightness, and the first sentence came to me:
The branch, bent to the ground as if under the weight of its
own white blossom, is
like a sadness I see
growing inside you.
I hurried back to my desk, where I could finally write the poem: “Apology for my Son Who Stops to Ask About His Mother Once More.”
I had figured something out. The story is in the title and in the image of a blossom, but not the particular details of my son’s adoption:
That is your story. This
is your share
of the world’s grief, what you must carry, and
which I cannot bear
I realized that, ultimately, I wasn’t trying to express my son’s experience, but how I wrestled with my own limitations as a parent. I was grasping something about us as distinct individuals.
I’m reminded that sometimes the poem comes after I’ve written what I think I need to say, when the will gives up, when the imagination takes over, allowing me to see a bit beyond my very limited perspective. For me, often, a conceit opens the door. It comes unexpectedly, once overhearing a coach’s feedback on my son’s breaststroke, once standing in line with my son one hot summer day. Each of these poems attempts to imagine my family, my husband and my children, as they really are, beyond the templates of my young life. Of course, every attempt is a failure—no one gets it exactly—and some shortcomings are greater than others, but what other option is there? At least, this way, the failures are my own.
Blas Falconer is the author of Forgive the Body This Failure (Four Way Books, 2018); The Foundling Wheel (Four Way Books, 2012); A Question of Gravity and Light (University of Arizona Press, 2007); and The Perfect Hour (Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press, 2006). He is also a co-editor for The Other Latin@: Writing Against a Singular Identity (University of Arizona Press, 2011) and Mentor & Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010). He teaches in the MFA program at San Diego State University.