Dad, Remember You are Dead: A Review
The men push me towards the dark
but I’m too fast. You’ll never stop my mouth
not now I’ve started. I can play rough too.
I’ll write my world, I’ll take my place. I spit
this shape onto the page. I make my mark.
Dad, Remember you are Dead is Jacqueline Saphra’s visceral and virulent sister collection to the T.S Eliot Prize shortlisted All my Mad Mothers. This is not a collection about resolution, or finding peace, or coming to terms with the past. It is searing, scathing shattering of convenient, comfortable silences: a disabusing of the narratives of dignified acceptance and humble forgiveness used to subjugate, manipulate, and control women.
For its emotional complexity and forceful handling of oppressive social conditioning, look no further than Saphra’s destabilising title: ‘Dad’ invoking a hierarchical relationship; ‘remember’ intoning a shifting authority; ‘you are dead’ declaring both a state of being and unbeing. Combined, these innocuous elements conflict and conflate, and reveal the tortured truth of this collection: ‘death being not the end-/ not for the living.’
Order: disorder. Obedience: defiance. Saphra’s skilful engagement of form and content yokes them together in uncomfortable alliances, enacting the struggle to survive within, and fight against, patriarchal social norms. This is witnessed most fervently in three key sequences that adeptly extrapolate the title:
Lessons my Father Taught me
Must I? Don’t make me. I wish I could run
from the chill of the challenge. I carp and I cry
so he sprinkles some grit in the white of my eye
as a father will do. I’m weedy and green
Rhythm and rhyme play the part of our tidy expectations, while the content articulates the turbulent reality of furious submissions and terrifying assertiveness.
He approves the ascent. Will he smile? Will he cheer?
I must gather my grace as he’s calling my name.
No. I force him to witness my turn from the brink
climb down drunk on defiance and dizzy with shame.
Where we expect picture-perfect moments between the generous teacher and the eager student, we witness instead a melee of defeat, defiance, and disconnect between father and daughter:
as he’s conning the climb and my troubles begin
as he drags me up with him. I say that I won’t
but he’s holding me tight and he tells me I must,
though I’m witless and gutless and kicking up dust
This sequence pointedly exemplifies the perpetual and exhausting battle of wills that rages throughout the book. The following sequence, ‘Not the Deathbed just the Disappointment’, epitomises the social constraints which bind adult children to their parents, and the infuriating duties, engendered silences, and strained lip-service that must be paid by an obedient daughter to her dying father. Saphra also considers this incandescent, socially incommunicable rage in ‘Recusatio Redacted’:
but now I’ve begun I am filled with
and an incandescent
no it’s not like me to
I was always so
while in the third of these sequences, ‘My Father’s Will’, she learns how to live with the dead, or rather, learns that we still have to live with the dead:
The hand lives. Ridiculous, that fist,
the way it rises, opens, gives a little wave.
This sequence is suitably muted in form, befitting the cautious steps needed to navigate the uncertain territory that comes with the death of a parent, particularly when the loss is a relief and not a lament. The poems embody the insidious nature of power and control. Even in a weakened state, the abuser manipulates and dictates the behaviour of those around them: demanding sympathy and refusing to die:
[…] they scream
their loss into the small hours, puke and snap
and beg you for a route into your dreams
burrow their balding heads into your lap.
Many of the poems in this collection focus on the physicality of the father: how he uses his body to intimidate and subjugate the women around him. A pervasive and persistent image throughout the collection is that of lips: wet lips, lecherous lips, lips demanding and pleading to be kissed; lips that don’t respect physical or emotional boundaries; lips that are distant and overfamiliar, defensive and predatory, disinterested and overly intimate. Nowhere is this more blatantly and unashamedly retold as in ‘My Father’s Stories’:
kiss me on the lips
on the lips
a baby who never slept
you were lucky
I didn’t abuse you
I could make you sleep
I’d dip my finger in whisky
& make you suck it
& sweetheart you loved it
One of the ways Saphra fights these violations is through the resistances and rebellions revealed in her ekphrastic poems. ‘Chiaroscuro’, dedicated to the artist Artemisia Gentileschi, focuses on her painting Lot and His Daughters. The painting also serves as the collection’s cover image, and has the unsettling effect of making the uninitiated observer close the book, study it anew, and consider just how significantly its subject has been misread:
In fact, the artist’s luminous regard so arrests
the old man’s gaze, he doesn’t spot something
quite irregular. Yes, the usual glass, the wine, daughter
without a name, absent wife; these we’ve known before.
But not this sharp sedition nudging at the edge:
strategic loaf of bread seemingly asking to be sliced
and next to it the artist’s hand, lovingly positioned,
fingers curled around the handle of the knife.
The poems in this collection are unflinching, viscous, precise, deliberate, defiant, and vocal: the antithesis of all a good daughter, a good woman, should be. And should anyone wonder if Saphra’s brutal honesty and unapologetic outspokenness about her personal life may be cause for regret, they need only refer to the collection’s closing couplet:
Fuck that. Fuck Atreus, fuck Agamemnon,
fuck Zeus, motherfucker masquerading as a swan.
Dad, Remember You are Dead. Jacqueline Saphra; Nine Arches Press, 2019. £9.99