REVIEW: JOE CARRICK-VARTY’S ’54 QUESTIONS FOR THE MAN WHO SOLD A SHOTGUN TO MY FATHER’
54 QUESTIONS FOR THE MAN WHO SOLD A SHOTGUN TO MY FATHER BY JOE CARRICK-VARTY
£7.00 /100 pages
Reviewed by Stella Backhouse
Some years ago, there was an anti-smoking campaign whose focus was on jolting parents into giving up. TV adverts asked children to reveal their fears. One was frightened of spiders. Another was frightened of thunder. A third was frightened on their first day at school. Finally the camera cut to a child who said “But that’s not what really scares me. What really scares me is my mum’s gonna die of cancer coz she won’t stop smoking.” Joe Carrick-Varty’s new pamphlet, 54 Questions for the Man Who Sold a Shotgun to My Father takes that fear, transfers its agent from nicotine to alcohol, and then inflates it until it overshadows an entire life.
The poems in this collection are clever and moving; but I must confess to some confusion the first time I read it. It wasn’t until I checked Joe’s Twitter feed and clarified that Daniel (his father) is still very much alive, that I was able to work out exactly what was going on. The primary emotion here (apart from unconditional love) is anxiety; and the various deaths that Daniel seems to die are the product of Joe’s never-ending nightmare about where his father’s alcoholism might end.
Or maybe not. Maybe there is a real death here. Maybe what has died – what is being mourned – is the expected father-son relationship. Because of the drinking, it has become inverted – and this is the root of the ever-present unease. Joe, the son, has been forced into the role of adult while Daniel, the father, has correspondingly become the child – someone whose whereabouts are the subject of constant worry, who needs to have his trainers bought for him, and who is then watched “struggling with the laces,/the incomprehensible bow”. The disorientation that runs through the collection is the result of Joe’s confusion, not just about what his position actually is, but also about how he can be a father when he is crying out to be fathered himself.
It’s a disorientation that’s amplified by the collection’s poetics. The banal landscape of suburban childhood and the comforting sing-song of early-years story books slowly zero in on something much more sinister. Sitting outside the main collection is an italicised pre-poem suggestive of a child being read to. Beginning with “here are the woods here are birds”, it gathers ominous momentum at “here are berries and blood here is leaf” before suddenly breaking off in a bewildered “here is pool/look my father how he floats”. The warm assurances of childhood have been brought into open conflict with the colder realities of the adult world.
Indeed, the significance of the shotgun-buying episode seems to be that it marked the moment at which the nine year-old Joe was literally dragged out of a childhood he was not ready to leave and in some ways still hasn’t left: “I am not really…/twenty six/but nine years old being pulled out of/maths”. Despite this, he remains protective of his father; his anger is directed at the man who sold him the firearm. The title poem mirrors the pre-poem in its movement from seemingly random starting point towards an increasingly specific target. This time however, the journey takes a more adult route, and the tone is more menacing: “Do you enjoy French films/Have you ever been operated on/…Are you waiting by the frozen fruit in Aldi/ Wearing a beanie/”
This is by no means a self-pitying collection. Joe clearly loves Daniel; his treatment of him mixes tenderness with a pragmatic acceptance that the drinking is a fact of life. But there are times when the pain shows through. Joe wants to idolise his father. He wants his father to be a different version of himself. He wants to go back to the beginning and start all over again. The final poem is a desolate meditation on of the sheer loneliness of it all. As the entire world around him calls their dad, all Joe has is himself, reflected on a blank TV screen, trying to call a dad who isn’t there. I’m old enough to be Joe’s mother. I just wanted to put my arms around him and tell him “Son, it’s OK.”