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Helen Losse – A Review of Paternity by Scott Owens

Paternity by Scott Owens (Main Street Rag Publishing, Charlotte, NC, 2010, 80 pages)

My first observation, concerning Scott Owens’ second book, is that Paternity begins where his first book, The Fractured World, ended. Two poems—“Foundings” and “On the Days I Am Not My Father,” first published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature in a chapbook entitled, “Deceptively Like a Sound“—are common to both books; they have to be. For Owens, it is not laziness and repetition that gets him more miles out of the same poems, but, rather, the poet’s common sense in knowing that he must begin where he is and then move on to where he wants to be. Owens is—most assuredly—not his father, but what he wants is to be a good dad and, perhaps, a good poet, too. He is even willing to give a bit on the latter to make the former happen. The poems in this volume convince me that he is a very good dad, indeed.

…you know
you’ll never change the world, become
the great poet…

…and then, out of nowhere she says,
“Daddy, you’re the best.” and you know
for a moment it will be enough.

(“Days Like These”)

By way of summary, Owens’ first book The Fractured World, also published by Main Street Rag, concerns his escape from an abusive childhood and his determination not to repeat the “sins of [his] father.” By the end of the book, Norman, the man who is part father part symbol and bit of anything Owens needs him to be, explodes and frees Owens for new adventures. I say, “Owens,” knowing that not always the “I” in a poem is the poet but also knowing that Paternity is confessional poetry at its finest. Sawyer is Owens’ real life daughter, Damian and Keegan Blankenship, also a Mule poet, his real life stepsons. The storyline in Paternity is about Owens becoming dad first to his two stepsons and then to his daughter. Owens is his own main character.

Owens knows he is “the self I was/ and can never cease to be.” (“Foundings”) So the struggle continues. And the struggle is universal—a struggle we all know no matter how different our details are from those about which Owens writes. The bulk of the poems in Paternity concern Owens’ young daughter Sawyer. The poems deal with everyday events to which any parent who ever had a small child can relate. One of my favorite poems has the funny title “How To Make Okra.” As though it isn’t funny enough to think that one “makes” rather than prepares fried okra, Owens does this while giving the infant Sawyer a bath in the other side of the kitchen sink. After “fill[ing] the left side of the sink/ with warm water,” and adding necessary entertainment items, Owens wishes to sit down with a beer but proceeds to prepare and fry okra “while singing I-N-G-O,/ stamping feet instead of clapping.” Been there, done that.

Much of the book deals with the poet’s wonder at the world of a child, “worlds/ enough unfolding to keep you/ in a constant state of wonder.” (“Sky of Endless Stars”) And as a parent, Owens celebrates small occasions with his young daughter, because “days are easily forgotten without them,/ each one only a number.” (“Creating Small Occasions”)

When I walk too fast, you stop,
bend over, say you have to get
the breath back in your mouth.’

(“Raising Sawyer”)

Not everything in the book concerns happiness. Owens has to remember, when his “[son has been] mean,/ [that] just because he’s smarter than me/ doesn’t mean he’ll become my father.” (“On the Days I am Not My Father”) The father who is gone, who has exploded, is omnipresent. Owens knows he always will be there. And in “The Lost Son,” he declares, “The worst is never knowing, never/ having a chance to say ‘forgiven.’” This is no fairy-tale world. Even the birth of a princess doesn’t constitute utopia. The struggle continues. Sometimes the world of child is difficult.

The laughter of little girls offends me….
This breathless melancholy [into which the poet has fallen]
… [is] willing to let nothing in.

(“Off Season”)

And then there is the death of Owens’ mother-in-law.

The death of a loved one, with its many emotions and tasks, is a hard thing to face, even for adults; but when the situation must be explained to a three-year-old child, it becomes even more complicated.

For days you cry at random,
explain that you’ll miss your Grandma,
want to know if you’ll die too,
how you get back from God.

(“First Loss”)

***

“There is only one problem with God.”

“If you tell him ‘I love you,’
he won’t tell you he loves you too.”

(“Theology”)

***

Sawyer says they [the dead] are with God
and since God is everywhere,
they are everywhere too,
claims she hears them saying so.

(“My Daughter Debates the Nature of Death.”)

Like many poets Owens writes to discover truth; it’s what keeps him up at night, “It’s what keeps me trying/ the need to do better for you/ the need to save myself.” (“What Keeps Me Up At Night”)  Owens has written all this down,

in a way that can’t be undone.

I do it because I can’t fully believe
the world would give me what I’ve always needed.
I do it to make sure you’re real.

(“Making Fiction”)

No wonder poets write the same poem again and again. The drive to discover truth is mammoth. And isn’t the search for truth, which is a kind of salvation, what writing is all about?  No wonder Paternity is a sequel to The Fractured World.  In Paternity, Owens searches for meaning in fatherhood, especially in the birth and young childhood of his daughter, Sawyer. Read the book to see if you think he finds it.


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