Contributor’s Marginalia: Dan O’Brien Responds to Philip White’s “Childlessness”

July 16, 2012



Is it pure choice or pure chance that I write
this poem about another poet’s poem
on Father’s Day? A day of surfacing
disequilibrium. Rage, then shame with those
who don’t have a father. Or a father
we never really could stand. Just a man
small with envy and cruelty. “Childlessness”
is a poem so wise with relief and dread
I feel as if I could’ve written it
myself. Had I this man’s gifts. The last thing
my father ever said to me was, When
did you break faith with your dream to become
someone? But I digress. “Hell behind me
and Purgatory open/ in my hand,”
quoth the poet. He’s revisiting Dante’s
Commedia, of course. One will remember
the dog-eared collegiate copy. Laboring
to burn off one’s childhood in the middle
of a tapering life, in the middle
of this forest blind and stern. Not unlike
our poem’s villa. Cataracted “jackdaws
clacking” in the clanging blooms. A lot like
the promontory and the ivory-breasted
waiters of Bellagio. The fogged flurries
in Sewanee, TN. The numinous
threat of Shanghai next week. The Pacific
caerulean shelf a dogwalk away. Luck
sometimes leads me to a good, long nap. But
always “someone else is here, dividing,/
provoking.” What? Guilt? Solitude? This lack
of family, a child of one’s own. This curse
of a “father/ at the door looking in”
on the poet at work. And should the son
meet the father’s spectral gaze, the father
will sit down and stay a while. And who knows
what crime we have in common? The tenor
of Dante invites vivid, disfigured
recollections. Of “pure choice” the poet
recommits to the page. Each time I read
this poem the title “Childlessness” becomes
“Childishness.” As if the father’s lingering
presence keeps me what I am. Italian
children pillaging the park certainly
support my thesis. Or maybe I’m wrong
and the childless one’s of course the father
whose son won’t ever look up, whose son wants
nothing more than to be free of this God
damned ghost.

photo by David Bornfriend

Dan O’Brien was recently a fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy. His play, The Body of an American, will premier at Portland Center Stage this fall. His poem, “The Dead End,” appeared with Philip White’s “Childlessness” in 32 Poems 10.1.

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