Marsh Hawk Press
95 Pages; Print, $18.00
While there are many memoirs of daughters writing about their fathers, there exist far fewer that explore the relationship in the other direction. Partly, this has to do with the nature of memoir. The narrative arc of memoir—reveal, judge, and forgive—does not lend itself to culturally acceptable modes of parenting. What parent, no matter how troubled the relationship, seeks to expose publically his own child to that—or wants to face the barrage of accusations from other parents that would undoubtedly accompany such an action? Most parenting memoirs, then, focus on raising and loving troubled children or children with particular needs—emotional and medical. Perhaps there exists also a social taboo. The father, after all, is expected to raise his daughter with diligence and compassion but also not appear to be thinking about, or watching, her too closely.
I’ll admit that when I first picked up Paul Pines’s latest poetry collection I didn’t truly appreciate its subversiveness. The collection’s title after all—Charlotte Songs—and its back cover promise a celebration, tribute, valorization of Pines’s daughter, Charlotte. Its combination of memoir and poetry and its incorporation of a structure that nods to the photo album appeared, to me, at first, for a lack of a better word, cute. It was only when I realized how rare such tributes are that I began to understand the true importance of these spare, elegant poems. Charlotte Songs confronts head on the passionate, watchful father faced not with a lost or troubled daughter but with the ordinary tension that arises between a child, striving for independence, and a father trying to stave the loss that independence implies. After a close reading, the poems, all arranged in chronological order, begin to resemble not so much a photo album as a ticking clock, with Pines, the father, losing time as his daughter slowly gains the awareness and confidence of an adult.
The collection is divided into seven sections marking Charlotte’s coming of age. The sole poem in the opening section “Precognition” establishes the tone for the entire collection.
Central Park, NYCJune, 1969A little girlin a red dressfalls downin dandelionslaughing ather own clumsinessat firstI think her an imageamong images thensee she’s the whole poem
The spare, precise language imprints on the mind with the clarity of a snapshot. Only later, when I realize that the child Pines is seeing is not his—the poem is dated 1969 and Charlotte won’t be born until 1987—do I recognize the poem’s real meaning. The last two lines take on an entirely new significance. The father-to-be realizes his perception of his future daughter’s childhood—fragmented and expressionistic will stand at odds to the personhood this child will achieve. The title “Precognition” is a nod both to child’s developing awareness and the adult’s foretelling. His needs as a parent may be at odds with those of his daughter’s.
A later poem, No. 7 in the section Snapshots: The First Eight Years, brilliantly recounts a moment from Charlotte’s childhood when she asks her father to kill death with the kitchen knife he is using to eat his dinner. The poem is structured as a dialogue between the two and begins with the father playfully accepting the challenge to act the hero and vanquish death. As the poem progresses its becomes clear it is Charlotte who is in charge if only because it’s a child’s game and, therefore, the child is the one who makes the rules:
-Of course yes I see him and is he ugly!
No you don’tDeath is invisible!
So show me where he is there by the printer? Take that…and that!
-Oh Daddy THATdoesn’t hurt himnow he’ll kill you
By the last stanzas Pines had failed his daughter not from his unwillingness or because of a lack of enthusiasm but because of his failure to recognize that what...