I have just now published a book of poems by Ralph James Savarese entitled “Republican Fathers” and I feel that mixture of pride and horror Lawrence surely felt watching coal miners climbing in and out of the earth. It’s an unblinking book about child abuse and the battens of politics and no one (including the poet) gets away without breathing fugitive dust.
The collection is decidedly un-lyrical but the poems aren’t narrative verse in any traditional sense as neither the writer or reader knows precisely where each poem is headed. In this way the book is like Turgenev’s “Smoke” a novel which seemed conventional enough–a love affair gone wrong–until readers saw it was an indictment of Russian privilege and a bottomless criticism of something wrong in the Russian soul.
“Republican Fathers” opens with a nuanced and scrupulous introduction. It must. Reading it for the first time I was reminded of Butler’s “The Way of All Flesh”: “There are orphanages,” he exclaimed to himself, “for children who have lost their parents–oh! why, why, why, are there no harbours of refuge for grown men who have not yet lost them?”
Savarese can’t of course answer that question but as the intro makes clear he can describe the child abuses dished out by powerful men. In the poet’s case they were Reagan-Bush Republican fathers but as he makes clear the liberal kids were just as battered by the American-Turgenev complex, the Potomac Baden-Baden of domestic cruelties. The book is sophisticated. It resists the easy “boo hoo” of tabloid literature. Of the Republican Fathers Savarese writes:
“To me, they tumble in the falls behind my house—the one I lived in as a teen in McLean, Virginia; the one that overlooked the River of Swans, as the Patawomeck called the great god spilling into Washington. Memory, like a baby, spits up on my shoulder, and out pops a once famous Republican. (There is no bib.) My connection to these men exceeds mere proximity, though I lived next door to two of them. Their children were my friends. Corruption was a family plot in whose pool we swam. Greed tucked us in at night—with or without love.”
The poet grew up in a compound. It was a narrow place but violent, mixed with the ugly polemics of the 1980’s:
“In my case, the political was not so much personal as pugilistic. Even a birthday card wore boxing gloves. Because my father was both a rich Republican and a violent narcissist, a link formed in my mind between party affiliation and parental performance. At school and at church, that link was ratified. My history teacher spoke of “Republican Fathers,” and I promptly imagined Richard Nixon beating his children. (Rumors persist that he beat his wife, Pat.) With the rise of evangelical Christianity, God had become a Republican, and he, too, was a dad—an absent, nasty one who denounced gays and lesbians and, of course, women who had abortions.”
Why are there no harbours of refuge for grown men?
Savarese can’t answer this question but the poems are the unflinching testimonies of a good man who, like good men everywhere needs to say something. These are, to my mind, very brave poems. The poet’s father is a powerful attorney. He buys a house that sits above the deadliest spot on the Potomac River. Sight seers drown in the falls on a regular basis. Meanwhile the wealthy come over for lunch.
We say good men should speak up. These poems answer that charge.
The soul claps its hands when it can let go:
“Have you forgiven your father his patrician airs and country club
membership—Marx knows how many other
disappointments? Have you forgiven his tepid apology for capital?
O checker of titles and escrow accounts,
private property’s essential servant, have you forgiven yourself?
Love wants no laws, no briefs, certainly no politics.”
In creative writing workshops they talk all the time about taking risks. The best poets do it. It takes bravery. I’ll say we need more tough minded poems by good men. I’ll say this poet steers us in the right direction. I’ll say this book is unlike anything you’ll be reading in American poetry in the near term.