My Father’s Kites by Allison Joseph, Steel-Toe Books, 2009. $12
Reviewed by Melissa J. Lindstrum
For anyone who has longed to understand the mysterious life of a lost parent, Allison Joseph’s sixth full-length poetry collection, My Father’s Kites, haunts and surprises and strikes some familiar chords. Organized in three parts, Joseph’s book is written almost entirely in form. In fact, the second section is comprised of 34 sonnets, all about her father’s death. The speaker of these poems reveals deeply personal details about the day she learned of her father’s death and her trip to the funeral home to organize his burial, and she even provides snapshots of her difficult relationship with her father while he was alive. Joseph also gives us scenes from the funeral itself, in which we can see just how estranged the speaker and her father were at the time of his death, and how, even in her father’s death, her family history has her locked in, forced to pretend she doesn’t know the truth about her wayward father. This is shown quite nicely in “Countrymen”:
…I’m here to play
the role of grieving child who’s not allowed
to speak of memory’s truth when others won’t.
With careful restraint and deft attention to each syllable, Joseph uses form to make the poems appear just as “locked in” as the speaker herself. This is no easy feat in a modern poetry world where readers (and writers, too) often complain of being distracted by rhyme and traditional form. But Joseph’s poems transcend the form, giving a body and a voice to the difficult relationship between the speaker and her father. Even though she follows a strict rhyme scheme, Joseph’s language is fresh and conversational, evocative and resonating rather than archaic or contrived. For example, in “Diabetes”:
That word, to me, was such a mystery—
an odd disease of needles, insulin,
injections that would pierce my father’s skin.
At first I didn’t understand when he
would stagger up the stairs, unkempt, dizzy,
as if some fear were quivering within.
His thirst had forced his body to give in.
This poem, along with many others in Section Two, follows the classic Petrarchan rhyme scheme: abba abba cdecde. Joseph’s line breaks keep the rhythm of the poem steady and the language interesting, and her choice of words and deeply personal voice make the poem lucid and accessible without sacrificing refinement.
The sonnet series is framed by a variety of villanelles, sticchic poems without any stanzaic divisions, and other poems written in free verse, all elegantly executed. The title poem, “My Father’s Kites,” gets to the heart of the collection—the magic and the collapse of the speaker’s relationship with her father:
…Father, you left me
with this unsated need to find the most
delicately useful of breezes, to send
myself into the untenable, balance my weight
as if on paper wings, a flutter then fall,
a stutter back to earth, an elastic sense
of being and becoming forged in our front
yard, your hand over mine over balled string.
The reason this poem is so poignant is because its juxtapositions are so very real. You could hold them—like the kite—in your hands. The speaker sings praises of her father’s almost magic ability to fly his makeshift kites; yet the poem is deeply grounded in the reality that this father-daughter relationship is built on a cycle of collapse-and-restore, with the speaker still seeking “the most/delicately useful of breezes” to float herself away from “the sad tangle/after flight.”
Joseph’s poems combine form and content in a way that lets us witness firsthand the intriguing combination of love and resentment that we often come across in our own relationships. She transforms a harsh reality into a place of tenderness and affection, mastering this difficult terrain without sentimentality.
Melissa Lindstrum was born in Milwaukee and lived there most of her life. Though she’s spent the last four years in other time zones, she is back in Wisconsin, working and eating lots of cheese in Madison.