by Martin Jude Farawell
Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019
$18.00, 110 Pages
Review by Toti O’Brien
Like Dante’s Divina Commedia, Odd Boy starts in the woods — with a long poem divided in sections, introducing like a musical overture the themes that will return through the symphony.
Dante wanders his forest at mid-life, having lost the “straight way” (the conventional path life borrows by rote unless something occurs requiring to stop, to recalculate). Farawell enters his wood in similar fashion, knowing one needs to go astray in order to find oneself. As he explores the wildness, a few landmarks that nature has kept intact help him summarize his life. He evokes crucial times of childhood and adolescence. He recalls the people who sculpted his identity, either in building or carving it, in adding or stealing matter. He draws the contour of the man he chose to become and the one he chose not to, outlining a pattern he will later fill out with chiaroscuro and details.
On page one, “a rope hangs from a branch.” Though here defined as a swing, this recurring icon multitasks as a hangman’s rope, especially in light of the elements the poem carefully aligns. State of wear and thickness of the rope itself, of the loop at its end, of the branch to which it is fastened are compared to the weight and bone strength/frailty of the boy/man who wishes/or/not to put it to test. Stilled in its “unswaying plumb,” the rope forecasts suicide. It is also the tool Abraham employs to bind Isaac prior to sacrificing him.
“Odd” is the boy who doesn’t dare swing from the rope, or join the drunken song of peers around the bonfire, or carve his name besides that of the girl he loves. He is cast off because he won’t perpetuate the aggressiveness tied to maleness and inherited from fathers, brothers, also modeled on mates. He can’t be and won’t be an angry man. He will choose the gentle “way of the deer” and will pay full price for his choice.
Part two builds upon the same themes — loneliness, pain, defiance, revolt — from a complex vantage point of present reflection intertwined by sharp, indelible memories. “Odd” is shyness — fear of self-expression and contact, due to lack of nurturing.
“In the hesitant fall
of my hands
who will fall
my life closes.”
The hypocrisy and sexual taboos of Catholic education pile upon the castrating legacy of harsh family life. Now and then the woods are revisited — quiet abode where the boy seeks solace and the grown up can retrace the child he once was, as if secrecy had crystallized the past. What can be still reached can be sung. It can be rescued still.
Part three zooms onto the pain with more definition. Now the difference is finely pixelated, crystal clear. “Odd” is the child willing himself out of his body to avoid witnessing the abuse inflicted upon it. He is the dumbest of his class — no one taught him how to spell his own name — the one who spills milk at the dinner table, acting out his parents’ unspoken argument. If he becomes invisible to avoid Father’s rage, he is not fast enough to flee Mother’s. In the night he overhears his parents’ fight, but no matter how he prays “there is no grace.” He pisses himself once, but the fear of parental punishment clings to his skin for good. He is the one to whom Dad didn’t show a single thing he could hand-build, if not perhaps “a carving knife at my wrists, to make me handless.” He is the one who tries throughout adolescence to find reasons not to commit suicide.
To the violence endured in childhood there is no real cure. Understanding it as the fruit of previous violence doesn’t help. Even poetry, the best possible outcome, can’t erase it. The voice that ends the fear doesn’t end the pain.
“If I sing, I weep.
If I sing joy, even sing joy, I weep.”
Then is it truly impossible to shift gears, heal the past, move over for good?
Part four introduces a sliver of hope. Old age and nearing death make the terrifying parent as frail as the child he once abused. Love that is found can mend wounds of love that was never given. More than all, the next generation turns the tide — the new children who won’t share their father’s pain, because he’ll never do to them what was done to him.
So the chain can be broken, but such thing is very hard to perform, as the book witnesses with stark and heart-wrenching honesty. Odd Boy refutes the inexorability of cause and consequence — it entails the paradox of giving what one never received. By the end, the initial rope is the tightrope upon which the odd boy dares to walk — rather a superhuman feat, as he unflinchingly proceeds through the void life has dug around him, only held by the infrangible thread of his own will, his own voice.