May 2012 Discussion Guide

Parent Traps

Imperfect parents and chary children in the May 2012 Poetry

Parent Traps

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Family matters in the May 2012 issue of Poetry. Children scorn parents, fathers disappoint sons, and—as at holiday dinners steeped in unspoken resentment—no one explains exactly what’s wrong.

Franz Wright’s “Postcard 2” bears the stamps of stifled rage:

Incomprehensible fate that sentenced my father to my mother. I can’t blame him, I would have left the raving bitch myself, and would do so many many times in years to come. Then, of course, I came along. There is a limit to what one man can endure. So I suppose I am the reason he left, actually. I am the one to blame. And yet he did his best; he did all that he was capable of doing, and wrote me every year, like clockwork. He rarely remembered to mail what he wrote me, poor man (when I think of what I must have put him through), barely legible one-sentence postcards he sometimes worked at half the night; but as they all said the same thing, word for word, it wasn’t that bad. He could be forgiven. The blizzard I visit your city disguised as will never be over and never arrive. I think what he was trying to say was that at some point I’d begin to notice I was freezing, wasn’t dressed right, had nowhere to go, and was staggering into a blinding snow that no one else could see. I think he meant, the cold will make you what I am today.

The speaker offers a slew of defenses for his father: “I can’t blame him,” “I am the one to blame,” “he did his best,” “poor man,” “when I think of what I must have put him through,” and more. Yet he may protest—or in this case, detest—too much: note the put-downs lurking behind the positivity. When an absentee father “does his best,” he isn’t doing very well. If “it wasn’t that bad,” it was bad nonetheless, and the father “could be forgiven,” but Wright’s cagey syntax hints that he likely wasn’t. Under this guise of gentleness, the son scathingly portrays his father’s incompetence: he slaved away at rewriting the same illegible postcard, which he rarely remembered to mail.

Yet for all the emotional distance between the speaker and his father—and the literal distance that necessitates postcards—the two seem similar, sometimes even interchangeable. He left his mother, as his father did, and he suggests that a metaphorical cold may turn him into his father. We might even consider this poem a “barely legible postcard” of the sort his father sent him: it’s called “Postcard 2”; it includes his father’s sentence; and while we easily comprehend the speaker’s words, we must squint to get a read on his emotions.

What does it mean that the speaker quotes his father? On the one hand, it seems an homage, especially since that sentence marks the most “poetic” moment of this prose poem. It rattles out in regular amphibrachs (three-syllable feet whose middle syllable is stressed) and offers a flurry of sound echoes  (“blizzard,” “visit,” “city;” “never,” “over;” “disguised,” “arrive”). It also ascends into the register of metaphor: as a blizzard that neither begins nor ends, his father is both remote and inescapable—an apt description of an absent parent.

Yet could the quotation antagonize his father, too? The speaker goes on to interpret that sentence, wresting authorial control away from his father and making the sentiment his own. Like all literary analysis, this critique both relies on and departs from its source text, just as a child must depend on yet grow apart from his parents. Does his interpretation seem like an embrace or a rejection of his father’s words—or both?

Like “Postcard 2,” Christopher Buckley’s “Getting There” moves in multiple directions at once:

Time to give up …
faulting my father and
his Neolithic moral certitude
about every detail
on the evening news….

And yet the blistering phrase “Neolithic moral certitude,” like the irritated “every detail,” suggests the speaker still faults his father quite a bit. The poem concludes with a scene in a train station, a locus of motion. Yet the speaker seems stuck, waiting “to be taken by the hand / and told where we are going, / to hear we are headed home.” Even as his life progresses, the speaker returns in thought to childhood, and the child he was also yearns to go backward, toward home—but doesn’t “get there.” Why does Buckley leave the child on the station platform? How does that gesture reflect the speaker’s emotional progress, or lack thereof?

A similar sense of indirection guides Spencer Reese’s “The Prodigal Son”:

For a decade I did not speak to my parents.
Are you listening to me? I will not bore you with details.
Instead, I will tell you something new. Listen to me.
I was angry. But the reasons no longer interest me.

The speaker twice demands our attention, yet avoids sharing his story. He also claims he will tell us something new only to repeat his wish that we listen to him. Having gone ten years without talking to his parents, the speaker isn’t quite talking to us, either.

At the conclusion of the poem, he returns to his parents—sort of:

Mother and father,
forgive me my absence.
I will always be moving quietly toward you.

If he is always moving, then he never arrives—like the father-as-blizzard in Wright’s poem and the little boy in Buckley’s. Is it coincidental that family invites this image in all three poems? Is it particularly hard to reach our family members? Can we only describe them with inexact speech?

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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