Family

Galway, Fergus, Emile, and Me

Lessons on fatherhood and writing from a famous poet—and his son.

Father fishing with his son.
Doris Liou

When my son was born, I was one month into a master’s program in creative writing. When I shared our good news with my new classmates, they congratulated me, of course, but what I heard almost as often was that they were jealous of the material that such a life-changing event, occurring at almost exactly the start of my creative-writing education, would undoubtedly yield. “I’ve always wanted to have a kid that I could write about!” one colleague said. Though for material did not, believe it or not, appear on the list of reasons my partner and I had for becoming parents, I did fantasize about one day putting the baby down for bed and escaping to the office—I don’t know how my fantasy comported with our tiny two-bedroom apartment in graduate-student housing—with a contented smile on my face, ready to write earnestly and openly about the truths to which fatherhood had opened my eyes.

Instead, two months after my son was born, failed attempts at poems filled the trash folder of my old MacBook. I loved him more than I ever thought I could love a person who shat into my hand while screaming at me. And still, likely because of that emotional proximity, everything I wrote about him came out sounding like a Hallmark card. I wanted so badly to write something that I could picture Emile reading in 18 years and being proud of, something expressing the wonder I felt at fathering this person so beautifully and directly that it would knock him on his ass and make him say, “Fuck. My dad wrote this.”

Wanting and doing are, of course, two different things. This is never clearer than in a time of creative frustration. Even writing this essay, I find myself concerned that every positive word I write about my son will end up sounding cheesy. I didn’t want Emile to think his dad was a cheesy poet. But what else could he think about lines like this?

There are so many things I’m excited to do with you—

teach you to read and write with a critical

but empathetic eye, explain all the different

meanings of the word “season,” be next to you

the first time you hear Miles Davis,

teach you to play the piano and encourage you

when you’re more interested in the trumpet

In our poetry workshop, we often refer to the triad proposed by Stephen Dobyns in the preface to his Best Words, Best Order: “I believe that a poem is an emotional-intellectual-physical construct.” A strong poem usually requires that each side of this triangle be represented in equal measure, with intellectual content, emotional power, and physical detail. The poems I was writing in the immediate aftermath of my son’s birth were drunk on emotion, without any mind being paid to the physical or the intellectual.

Any parent will tell you that taking care of a newborn child is an utterly primal experience. Everything you do—from the spittle-soiled rag that stays planted in your pocket to the caution with which you pass the baby to make sure his tiny neck stays cradled—all stems from the panic you feel about keeping this tiny, beautiful, helpless creature alive. And you do it all on raw instinct while slowly descending into madness due to lack of sleep. It struck me that my writing, so eager to represent the unbounded joy of fatherhood, downplayed the more difficult aspects of those first few months of life.

Then my professor Dorianne Laux recommended a poet named Galway Kinnell. She promised that Kinnell would be the key that unlocked my writing about fatherhood. Leafing through his books the same day in the university library, I was instantly transported to the fatherhood-poetry fantasyland I’d imagined while my son was still in utero. Every image, every sentiment, every line break was perfectly placed in a way that neither betrayed nor cheapened the experience of being a father.

It seemed as though my sense that what my writing needed was the emotional distance I’d yet to acquire was wrong. Kinnell’s poems couldn’t have been less emotionally distant. In books like The Book of Nightmares and Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, he addresses fatherhood and its attendant emotions very directly. One poem, titled “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight,” explicitly begins with Kinnell lifting his daughter Maud from her crib:

You scream, waking from a nightmare.


When I sleepwalk

into your room, and pick you up,

and hold you up in the moonlight, you cling to me

hard,

as if clinging could save us.

The rules that he breaks! Naming his daughter, a thing I assumed you should never do in a poem! Giving the word hard its own short line after such a long line! Writing so directly about such a tender moment as lifting a child from her crib as you rescue her from a nightmare! And yet, Kinnell doesn’t sound cheesy at all. He focuses on the physical detail of the moonlight hugging his daughter. He brings us gently to the intellectual heaviness suggested by the last line in the stanza—the fact that they are both, despite their difference in age, headed for death, and no loving embrace will slow death down. And he makes it clear that the father needs the daughter’s clinging as much as the infant daughter needs the father’s presence. They need us utterly, as we do them. He hits this last note hard in the final lines of the poem: “the wages/ of dying is love.”

Another poem, called “Angling, a Day,” details a fishing trip Kinnell takes with his son Fergus. Kinnell paints the scene with very specific detail, naming specific bodies of water like Shirley’s Pond and Miller Run as well as buildings they pass on the water, like Eastern Magnesia Talc Company’s Mill No. 4. (I found myself Googling the names to find the specific part of Vermont where the Kinnells used to live.) This vivid detail lures the reader into the scene, bringing vivid life to the moment when, instead of the father delivering advice to his son, young Fergus conveys an unexpectedly epiphanic reaction to not catching anything: “ ‘I’m disappointed,’ he says, ‘but not discouraged./ I’m not saying I’m a fisherman, but fishermen know/ there are days when you don’t catch anything.’ ” Again, it’s the father who needs the child as much as the child needs the father. And in this poem, Kinnell brings this home with an intellectual truth, rather than the emotional truth relied on in the closing lines of “Little Sleep’s-Head”; here is a poet who knew how to play his entire drum kit instead of just banging the snare drum.

I had assumed that to write good poetry about fatherhood I’d need to first acquire some sort of emotional distance, allowing me to write more opaquely, in a way that wouldn’t make my reader cringe at direct declarations of fatherly love. Earnestness is a great quality in normal conversation, but I often shy away from it in my own writing, worried it will overwhelm the poem. But Kinnell seemed to be saying through his poems that simple, direct declarations of love and fear can actually provide poems with the emotional punch they need; instead of getting further away from the heart of these emotions, I needed to get closer to them and examine them with a finely tuned eye and ear.

Take Kinnell’s decision to use his children’s actual names. I had, up to this point, assumed that to be a faux pas in writing poetry about your children. Poetry often strives to universalize experiences and emotions, crystalizing them in a way that allows a wider audience to relate to them; naming my family members would seem to accomplish the opposite, limiting the world of the poem. (People care about children, but they could never care about Emile as much as I do.) But Kinnell’s poems work because he specifically addresses his children. This direct intensity could stand in for any relationship between a parent and their child, but fictionalizing it would strip it of its immediacy.

Perhaps those names recurring in Kinnell’s work—the way I could visualize their little family going on fishing trips and spending quiet evenings reading together—were what led me to mythologize Galway, Fergus, and Maud. To me, their story, as told in Galway’s poems, was a template for exactly the type of life I wanted to lead. I imagined a sort of creative paradise, one in which I’d take my son fishing and he’d floor me with his words of wisdom. Picking my daughter up from her crib, I’d ascertain the balance of life and death. Maybe I’d even attain Galway’s perfectly square jaw, and bangs that edge sharply over my brooding gaze. Then I’d retire for the night to the mahogany-laden study of our house in Inishturk to write collections of poetry that were met with acclaim from my friends and peers. But to me, in the fantasy, none of the many awards I’d win or best-sellers I’d write mattered: All that mattered was that my kids would read these poems in their adulthood and say, as Fergus and Maud could, “Fuck. My dad wrote these.” And they would inherit a document of how much I loved and cherished my time with them.

In the months after reading Kinnell’s work, I had begun to approach my writing about fatherhood with more confidence, though that confidence came in large part from my very overt attempts to mimic Kinnell’s style and structures, filtered through my own voice. Around when Emile was 9 months old, I was at a summer workshop on the West Coast. I told my friend Dennis about my obsession with Kinnell’s work, how his writing totally demonstrated for me the kind of poetry I was trying to write and, in that sense, unshackled me from a creative deadlock.

“Really?” Dennis asked. “That’s so crazy. Fergus lives here; I met him a few weeks ago.” In being swept away by the myth I’d built around Fergus and Maud, I had forgotten, of course, that they were real people—in fact, 40-plus years later (The Book of Nightmares was published in 1971), they were real adults. (Galway died in 2014.) This was an oddly terrifying moment for me, one in which the stories I’d constructed were about to be confronted by reality. “He said he doesn’t really read his father’s work,” Dennis added.

Needless to say, this bugged me. How could somebody whose father had directly addressed all these carefully crafted, tremendously moving poems to them simply ignore them? So I decided to ask him. Was I ashamed of my choice to Google-stalk the children of one of my favorite poets? Of course. Was I going to do it anyway to satisfy my curiosity once and for all? Of course. Fergus responded quickly and politely to my message.

In our email exchange, he confirmed that he “hardly ever” reads his father’s poetry. He confirmed too that many of the moments depicted in his father’s poems are rooted in real memories: “I’m so glad I was there in those moments with Galway (yes, even falling out of a tree, the fear and pain has been forgotten).” (Fergus’ fall from a tree is depicted in the opening poem of Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, aptly titled “Fergus Falling.”) He thoughtfully explored why he doesn’t read his father’s work, admitting that although his father was “beloved in the home,” Fergus often felt “some resentment for his absence” when he was away “traveling, giving readings on tour, [doing] temporary teaching jobs here and there.”

Fergus also mentioned a university dinner his dad brought him to a little closer to home. “There was food and wine and fun, clever conversation, and Galway was very witty,” he wrote. “I was shocked by how funny he was at that dinner. The next day I said something to the effect of, ‘Why aren’t you that funny at home?’ He replied, ‘Sometimes you have to sing for your supper.’ ”

As I read Fergus’ reflections on his father, I admit I felt a little ashamed at my initial disappointment that Fergus doesn’t often read his father’s work. Not only had I neglected to consider the family dynamics in this real father-son relationship, I also allowed myself only a very narrow idea of what it means to pass our legacies down to our children. It was Galway’s writing life—the one I had fantasized about and mythologized so thoroughly—that had been the source of friction in that relationship, while the moments when Galway was simply a father were what Fergus missed. Fergus has been a metalworker for 26 years, doing everything from fabrication to machining to forging, making railings, furniture, latches, hinges, planters, light fixtures, and more. “This might sound like a cliché,” he wrote when I asked how his father’s work might have influenced his path, “but I believe Galway believed that everyone is an artist, everyone is a poet … I don’t remember him ever being disappointed in any interest of mine; turtles, snakes, dump trucks.”

But there was another, more immediate story that Fergus recalled. “Galway taught me how to solder copper tubing for the water system in our house in Vermont. We re-piped the entire bathroom and kitchen in a day or two. The copper tubing was installed outside of the wall, and this re-do was to allow all the water to drain when we left the house to freeze. This was my first metal working job.” The most noble things we do as parents are not always the most ostentatious; they may not have anything to do with our own passions. So in honor of Galway Kinnell and the poems I love, I am focused on being present—not living in some writerly fantasy—as often as possible with my son, because it is impossible to know or control which of my actions will have a significant impact on his life; fishers, after all, know there are days when you don’t catch anything.