Reviewer: Brian Fanelli
Michael Montlack’s Daddy contains several types of daddies and mothers, important key figures in the poet’s life. This collection is also an exploration of desire, childhood, sex, and gay identity. It praises a loved one in one poem before acknowledging the fallen in another. Through this journey, sharp humor combines with a sort of observation and reflection found in the very best lyric and narrative poetry.
Of note is the way the poet explores the past, how those old ghosts echo. For instance, in “Daddy: Mythologies,” there’s a striking divide between the older speaker, who remembers AIDS, and a younger speaker, who has come of age post-1980s, living in the 21st Century when maybe we take too many LGBT rights for granted. In the third stanza, the speaker ponders, “In his mid-thirties, a little more / than a decade younger than me, / wasn’t AIDS a ghost story for him?,” before adding in the next stanza, “Was it part of my job to narrate / that epic?”
There’s something particularly haunting and moving about this poem, and Montlack seemingly blends personal narrative with larger issues, a common theme in this collection. The speaker refuses to abandon condoms, even if the lover reminds him about “the wonders of Prep.” Yet, the speaker can’t forget the men who died of AIDS and how they still impact the present, especially the speaker’s personal memory and sexual choices. The poem is quite nimble and well-executed, in that it never preaches. But the dynamic here shows how younger generations are sometimes quick to forget a history that wasn’t all that long ago. This seems especially important right now when the fate of everything from Roe v. Wade to LGBT rights to Affirmative Action seems tenuous, just one SCOTUS ruling away from a major rollback.
There’s also a lot of heart and humor in this book, too. Take “Ancient Aliens,” for example, a poem in which the speaker compares his love life to a show about whacky conspiracy theories. In the opening, he writes,
While you’re Just doin’ weekend chores
with your boyfriend (or is it fiancé now?),
I’m gorging again on The History Channel,
trying to convince myself I might meet
someone at the gym if only I could levitate
from my sofa with the same ease and grace
Chinese myths assigned to “flying dragons”
some Ph.D. (with A Flock of Seagulls haircut)
insists were aircraft awing naïve ancestors.
I must give praise here for the creative metaphor Montlack uses in this piece, setting up the “Ancient Aliens” imagery in the title and first stanza and then extending it, until the speaker compares his past lovers to aliens. The speaker also calls himself “a stargazing primitive willing to carve / your likeness into cavern walls, learn / your language, spend a whole lifetime / flattening the earth into a landing pad / in case you might visit again.” Haven’t we all felt that sort of longing? Haven’t we all wanted desperately to please someone not quite into us in the same way? The poem resonates, and it’s darn funny, too.
In other poems, Montlack challenges the notion of masculinity. In a poem that contains that very name as its title, he writes in the opening line, “I learned its meaning from my mother.” Immediately, he challenges the traditional concept of the term, with the speaker admitting he learned it not from the father, but from the mother. This isn’t a poem about going hunting with the old man or playing football with pals. Instead, the poem lists various words to define masculinity, like warm, gentle, and ready, before offering a definition of those words. It’s a short, yet layered poem. It also explores the relationship between the mother and speaker and reads like a tribute to her. For instance, in the definition of ready, the speaker says, “to remind her: / the countless times / she changed me / as a child.” In the next poem, “I’ve Been Told My Birth Mother Believed in Aliens,” the poet returns to otherworldly imagery to ponder how his birth mother felt about her children:
I wonder if she was scared of us. The six children
she birthed and abandoned or surrendered.
If maybe we seemed more alien than extraterrestrials,
more painful than her cancer, than the anger
she might have assumed we harbored toward her.
I’ve been told she ran off to Florida in the 50s.
And I wonder if Florida sounded more glamorous
to a small-town Pennsylvania girl back then.
The poem continues to imagine how the birth mother felt about her children and leaving them. Both this poem and “Masculinity” showcase Montlack’s ability to dive deep into the personal and hit some big emotional notes. Not only does he explore the relationships with the women who shaped his life, but he also addresses some of literature’s most well-known females. “Mother Medusa,” for instance, rewrites the myth. Instead of praising Perseus, who slayed the Gorgon, the poem calls out Athena, who punished Medusa because Poseidon raped her in the goddess’s temple. Yet, the poem points out that Medusa birthed Pegasus, who “co-opted a mother’s power / to make mortal flesh into lasting stone.” He concludes by further rewriting the myth of the monster, “Oh, great maker of statues— / fierce mother whose glare could freeze / any child in his tracks—when you died, / did you see how your offspring flew?” It’s a clever retelling of a familiar story.
There’s so much reflection in this book, too, and the collection concludes with a rather moving poem, “Do Our Parents Ever Really Die?,” about the way the dead still speak to us. The speaker sees his parents in himself. “And isn’t your father poking / fun again when you discover / his belly has become your own.” He also imagines heaven for his mother as the diner where she once worked, learning “to stack the perfect BLT / for the man who would be / my father.” It’s a stunning tribute to the past and loved ones and one of the most resonant poems in the book.
Daddy is a collection where ghosts, be it deceased parents or friends lost to AIDS, come alive and affect the speaker in the present. These poems ruminate, joke, and reflect. The voice in this body of work is distinct and unique. One poem will make you laugh, while another will make you want to call your parents while they’re still alive. There’s a beautiful narrative here that follows a gay man from childhood to adulthood, describing how he discovers his identity and remembers those who shaped and supported him. While this a moving collection about how the past forms us, the poet also frequently transcends personal narrative, striking powerfully emotional and universal notes.