Father, Child, Water
by Gary Dop
Red Hen Press, 2015
96 pages, $14.85
Reviewed by Ruth Foley
A reader could be forgiven for wanting to retitle Gary Dop’s new collection Father, Child, Water to read Water, Water, Water, since water finds its way into the smallest places in the book. It appears as the sea, dishwater, snow, blood, popsicles, beer—the list goes on. It weaves itself through all three sections, so much so that even in its absence, it is not truly absent. Instead, Dop gives us ghost-water, such as the potential for moisture in the description of a dead man’s nose, in “Bill Bitner Attends His Grandfather’s Funeral,” looking “like a shiny / sunken ship.” In “Spotted Owl,” where even the stars are dusty, “desert mice scattered in the sands of night,” and it is impossible to disregard the lack of water, the only hope for relief.
This is not to imply that Dop’s book lacks scope. Its scope, though often filtered through what feels like a series of personal, authentic experiences, is vast. He takes us from Osama bin Laden to Chevy Chase, from Moby Dick to a sink full of dishes, from the natural world to a church potluck. And that’s just in the first section. The collection is broad in terms of character, geography, and subject matter, but remains grounded in a lived life, which gives each poem, even those that take off in unexpected directions, veracity.
Despite the fact that many of the poems (including the entire third section) are persona poems, the book has a consistency of voice—even with such disparate speakers as four different poets at a reading and Evander Holyfield’s left ear, attempting to describe the night when Mike Tyson bit it off, it’s easy to settle into a comfortable rhythm with this collection. This consistency also serves those who like to sink into a book at page one and read through to the end as well as those who like to pick and choose poems almost at random, tasting a bit here and a bit there as they go along or flipping back and forth between pages or sections. While Dop’s poems shift from talkative to fleeting, the voice is always there, a tether for readers who want one as they float through and a foundation for those of us who might just want to stand a while.
Often understated, Father, Child, Water is most effective when it grows spare. The best poems are tight and focused, and make it easy to believe in the deliberateness of Dop’s choices. “The Spit Hand,” for example, takes a passage from the Gospel of John, where Jesus cures a man’s blindness, as its motif. One long sentence, the poem moves from an unfocused world where the speaker “saw men as trees / walking their sway behind a veil / of rain,” and—worse—a world where that level of sight “is enough,” to a world of precision, where “crisp trees / held their ground.” In the process, the speaker realizes his previously unacknowledged need “to live like a blind man who sees.” It’s a long journey to make in the course of eleven brief lines, this development from ignorance to gratitude, and it needs careful handling in order to avoid landing as trivial or shallow. Instead, Dop measures his line breaks and pulls the reader through the sentence with carefully-constructed syntax, leaving us with a poem that deepens at each turn of the line.
“Winter Campout” accomplishes that same sort of motion, drawing us across the line and stanza breaks. Here, however, Dop also controls the pace of the poem by working within and against the constraints of the sentence. He begins with short sentences—brief descriptions, hints of unspoken agreements—that seldom carry over more than a couplet, but then the last half of the poem is one long sentence that spills over line after line. It connects the boys, the campsite, and soon, all of Earth itself, “turning / in its white mask” of new snow.
Accessible poems risk losing the reader’s attention, but the strongest poems in Father, Son, Water allow the seemingly straightforward vocabulary and syntax to build to true insight. In Dop’s world, all the players—real and imagined, traditional and fanciful—are complicit in our understanding.