Telling Family History in Photographic Detail

Requiem for David: Poems by Patrick T. Reardon, Silver Birch Press, $14.

While there is a danger in crafting work about suicide that is overly confessional, there are plenty of memorable poems and even entire collections about the subject. Anne Sexton’s “Sylvia’s Death” comes to mind, or, more recently, Matthew Dickman’s stunning book Mayakovsky’s Revolver. Patrick T. Reardon’s collection, Requiem for David, addresses the suicide of his brother in an arresting and haunting way by incorporating photographs as a means for the reader to dive into the family dynamics, including his emotionally distant parents and his brother’s pain.

Poetry has the ability to distill a moment in time, a single instant. This technique is underscored in Reardon’s work by the use of the photographs, which mirror the subject matter. The opening poem, “1951…foreign,” features David and Patrick with their mother standing over them. Here, we are presented with the central characters in the book and shown the mother’s distance from the children, including during the birthing process. Reardon writes, “She had no/language for/us. Felt our/foreign rhythms/like forest drums/under the skin, a/snake to break/through, tearing/tissue and turn/on her form within.” The snake metaphor is especially effective and the images of violence punctuate several other poems in the book, addressing David’s life-long pain and ultimate suicide. Furthermore, the clipped lines and frequent enjambment create tension and unease in the poem, which is a contrast to the photo, in which Patrick and Mom are smiling. The poem concludes, “She/could not/abide the/chaos we/were. We/only felt lost.”

The mother is more central in the collection than the father, but the author is careful never to lash out. In fact, some of the poems acknowledge the difficulty that is motherhood. “1951…gingerly” ends with the lines, “She/needed the lines she drew around her life/and around us. We were dangerous territory.” Prior to that, it is stated how effectively the mother completed all of the household tasks. Overall, the poem presents the mother as someone who bore the challenging responsibility of domestic life, while also needing space.

Tension also arises from Patrick and David’s differing views on religion. In “Three hundred and sixteen days later,” the poet confesses, “You reject the light-switch Jesus/you couldn’t find.” Then, the poet adds:

I heard Jesus in the music.

I smelled Jesus in the incense and shit.

I felt Jesus in the Alleluia spaces

of the churches and the city. I

walk the streets of Manhattan and

Chicago and I touch Jesus in the red

bricks of apartment buildings

and see Jesus in the golden afternoon

sun on the apartment building wall.

The push and pull between Patrick and David’s differing views, specifically David’s outright rejection of the superficial aspects of religion, develop a unique tension. There is also a heavy longing when the poem turns and the speaker imagines his brother finding some comfort in death, even God’s love.

Requiem for David is careful not to make any sweeping judgements about suicide. Instead, it gives a complex family history through the use of poems juxtaposed with photographs, allowing the reader to better understand David and the weight of his loss on the poet. While religion is explored, especially in the last third of the book, it is done so as means to navigate the complex relationship and contrasting viewpoints between brothers. A few of the poems are also prayer-like in that they ask for nothing more than David’s release from pain, which he could never experience while alive.

Brian Fanelli’s most recent book is Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books). His is also the author of the chapbook Front Man (Big Table Publishing) and All That Remains (Unbound Content). His poetry, essays, and book reviews have been published by The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, The Paterson Literary Review, Main Street Rag, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. Brian has an M.F.A. from Wilkes University and a Ph.D. from SUNY Binghamton University. Currently, he teaches at Lackawanna College.

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