Spilling the Tea
(or a book review)
Separated into three sections (Daddy, Mother, and Father), Michael Montlack’s collection Daddy explores the many definitions of parenting and family and, in the process, discovery of the self.
The opening poem of the book “How to Mother Like a Man” is the perfect lead-in to the “Daddy” section which explores a gay speaker’s confident sexuality. In this first poem, we learn about the male seahorse, how it carries the children for the female in a protruding belly that reminds the speaker of his own father, noting that both the creature and the father were “doing whatever it takes to protect the Queen.” This starts the book with non-traditional views of both parenting and male roles. Then, as the reader moves into the “Daddy” section, Montlack begins to explore the multiple definitions of fathering in narratives that are poignant, humorous, and tinged with longing.
One definition of “father” is “the oldest, most respected member of a society or body.” Montlack locks onto this definition in multiple poems: “Daddy: Mythologies” shows a speaker’s struggle to communicate with a younger lover for whom the AIDS crisis is simply a story and not a lived experience; in “The Passion of Sergius and Bacchus,” the story of martyred Roman soldiers (who scholars believe were lovers) reveals a respect for those for whom love was danger; and in “That’s Ms Pride to You,” great tenderness is shown toward an
older man in drag that is laughed at by younger, stronger men who do not know his history.
This section also alternates poems of confident sexuality with poems of great tenderness, giving the reader a well-rounded balance of lust and love, of play and passion. The frolic of “Rock River, Vermont” (with its subtitle of “Bet Frost Never Stopped by These Woods) is placed next to “Ancient Aliens,” a new and tender twist on the old idea of love at first sight ; “Benjamin Un-Button-ed,” which gives us an oiled up bouncy house with an invitation for the neighbors to join in and “Daddy: A Delicate Diatribe” gives us a litany of the confident, in-charge lover. These are juxtaposed with the nostalgia of “Purple Haze,” giving us a glimpse of first crushes on posters of 70s rock stars.. This section claims the term “Daddy” for the speaker, and the label resonates in many ways.
The move into the Mother section is a move toward character and elegy. In this section, Montlack portrays multiple women of impact on the speaker’s life: the mother who raised him, a biological mother who left him, a beloved grandmother, a woman on a plane who entertained him as a child, and neighborhood women, all colorful and alive in the hands of Montlack’s descriptive narratives. “Toast” explores the concepts of karma and reincarnation in a poem fo regret for missing a mother’s last moments. “Mother,” a letter to mother who is gone, is centered on a woman who just wanted to make you some tuna and talk about the weather. The poem brings her to life: “...humongous handbags,/surprisingly light, brimming with crumpled/tissues, keys, Trident gum and eyeshadow:/that 60s seafoam green you believed/complimented crimson hair.” It also recognizes that the things we mourn most are often the things that perhaps exasperated us: “open up a can!/Tell me the forecast again./How tomorrow looks like it might be clear./Or just less cloudy.”
The speaker gives particular attention to Stevie Nicks in this section, invoking her as muse and mother. These poems are some of the most lyric in the collection, giving us not stories, but impressions. “In Her Voice” gives us “girls— la laing,/twirling before dusty mirrors,/where they spy more beautiful/versions of themselves.” The singer’s voice is the subject of the prose poem “Stevie” which ends with “See how her disciples swerve to that lush vibrato—hungry/Hansels and Gretels leaping into the mouth of her oven.” And, in one of my favorites in the collection, “Don’t listen to her, listen through her” the poet realizes the limits of language, understands that “a growl is a growl is a/growl. In any tongue./It’s not the note a bell strikes/but the gesture of ringing…”
The last section entitled Father is a bookend to the Daddy section, now honing in on the definition of “father” that states “one who gives care and protection to someone or something.” The most lyric of the three sections, this one both interrogates a family history of maleness and celebrates a father, now lost, portrayed as simultaneously flawed and larger than life. We see this father in his workshop, as a fireworks provider on the Fourth of July, Favorites include “One Sparrow” a spare and haunting poem that gives us: “the sparrow sweeps in the dark,/and your voice dangles from it,/my ears recognizing this much://Son...//You were a man of few words/in life too.”
Illustrating at every turn how family is not simply something created by blood, the poet portrays family as a group gathered by the choices we make about who and what will best nurture us. Whether that family consists of biological parents, adoptive parents, historical figures, old friends, lovers, or even celebrity icons, Montlack shows that our chosen tribes both break and heal us in memorable and indelible ways.