Friday, July 3, 2015

Celeste Doaks's Father-Daughter poems

In Cornrows and Cornfields, Celeste Doaks contributes to a long-running and important creative domain by producing a series of poems about the loving and sometimes tense relationship between a black father and daughter. Doaks's poems remind us why such relationships are so vital.

[Related: The value of 'Cornrows and Cornfields']

Taken together, Doaks's series of father-daughter poems offer a variety of perspectives. In "Boy First, A Doaks Girl, or Daddy Say," Doaks takes on the first-person persona of father who must now deal with having a daughter instead of a son: "Now my mind was all set on Eric or Anthony or Raymond / and I get a girl. I mean, how many basketball games can you play with a girl?" And later, he acknowledges that his child "got my blood in her but hopefully she don't turn out to be a smoker like me. Or a drinker."

In additional poems, Doaks provides childhood reflections on sharing moments with her dad. In "Father-Daughter Time," she describes the regular practice of helping her father wash his car. The seemingly minor details of cleaning the car "got special attention, / the way I wished my announcements of another 'A' would elicit a grin. But instead this [washing the car] was our father-daughter time."

In her poem "Dad's Golf, a Foreign Language to Me," Doaks recalls receiving lessons from her dad on "the difference between a 9-iron and a Driver," the proper stance, and "bogies and double eagles." For the young girl, the dad's terminology was a "foreign language."

One of the most powerful poems among the father-daughter poems, and perhaps in the entire volume, was "Things I Cannot Tell My Father." The poem is essentially a list of things and musings the author has that she would prefer not share with her father; and yet here, she reveals the list to us:
I always loved your grin.
I drink too much because of you.
Normally when I call the house I ask for mom
because talking to you is awkward.
I've touched myself in your house.

The catalog goes on. Later, she writes, "I think my difficulty loving men stems from my difficulty loving you,"  and "I cried at Granddad's funeral because I felt more for your loss than mine."  She closes, "I once told mom to leave you. / Despite my anger, I still want the reason you grin to be / because of who I turned out to be."

Those father-daughter poems are powerful when read separately, but even more so in the context of Doaks's volume, which also includes mother-daughter poems and compositions about the different environments that a black girl navigates. The poems chart the ways the father was integral to shaping lessons and motivations for his daughter, and in turn how she was important to influencing his movements and interests.

Doaks's father-daughter poems correspond to a broad body of writings on fathers by several other poets, including Robert Hayden, Houston Baker, Allison Joseph, Tony Medina, Patricia Smith, and Kevin Young, to name just a few. The extents to which Doaks goes in revealing the vulnerabilities of both a father and daughter in the relationship allow her to make special contributions to the larger discourse.   

• The value of 'Cornrows and Cornfields' by Celeste Doaks 
• Select list of debut collections by African American poets, 2000 - 2015
Cultural Signifiers in Cornrows and Cornfields  

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