A review of Republican Fathers by Ralph James Savarese
Republican Fathers by Ralph James Savarese
Nine Mile Press (2020)
Softcover $16 (138 pp)
available from Nine Mile www.ninemile.org
To say this book of poetry is scathing and bitter would be an understatement. Through the autobiographical lens of the poet who grew up under an oppressive father, and next door to neighbors whose fathers worked under Nixon, these poems mark the crimes and “sins of the fathers”, showing how history has revealed the effects of those crimes. With epigraphs from Russian writers such as Gogol and Turgenev, Savarese shows a direct correlation of the current political climate with those works that satirized government by lampooning the evils of corrupt bureaucracy.
We are currently living through an unprecedented election year and these poems serve to shine light on the dangers of putting our faith in those in power. And how fleeting that power is. In poems ranging from the autobiographical to the historical, Republican Fathers is not afraid to call out not only the criminals from the Nixon administration, but those who participated in any Republican effort from current events and going as far back as Lincoln.
The poems I was most drawn to were the ones that brought forth the vulnerable, such as the poet himself. The opening poem of the book, “Face Time with the President”, uses the metaphor of his father as President: “Yet even as I loathed my President, I stupidly/searched for him, fancying myself the Secretary/of His Interior…”. Even his father’s body is compared to the White House: “my President had...attended to his pecs, his abs,//his quads, his calves—those lovely grounds around/the People’s House.” While his children are his metaphorical neglected teeth: “A darker, danker, more crowded and malodorous/room you cannot imagine! My President/had, by this point, let his pearly White House go.”
“Paper Boy” is addressed directly to Bob Ehrlichman’s son who struggled under the infamy of his father’s conviction and jail sentence as Nixon’s right hand man, as he delivers the newspaper to the poet’s family. His method of delivering a newspaper is treated as anything from a missile to: “one might even say pregnant/were it not for the baggie//in which the paper was wrapped.” There is a sort of vengeful sympathy towards him.
“Patti Davis is My Hero” describes the connection, and no doubt, the simultaneous disconnect he feels with Ronald Reagan’s daughter. The President’s child who had once denounced his politics but later, in an attempt at a truce, wrote of her memories of her father and his Alzheimer’s disease in “The Long Goodbye”. The poem is addressed directly to her and speaks of the poet’s own son, “adopted...from foster care/whose alcoholic mother/your father called/a ‘welfare queen.’” It would seem a truce with his own father is out of the question for him by the end of the poem.
“Water Park” describes the poet enjoying himself as a hormonal teenager even as he feels disconnected from his mother as she suffers a miscarriage. There is a bald honesty in this one that draws the reader in: “I’m a sweet,/misogynistic avalanche--/the ‘a’ in a girl’s ‘I can’t’”.
The Potomac River plays a central role in the book. In “Little Falls”, the poet’s terrified mother begs the father, who is determined to cross it, to turn back in a scene of alcohol-induced domestic disturbance.
“The Potomac doesn’t care. A bad
government? A bad marriage? Soldiers
broken like matchsticks, going off
like improvised explosive devices?
It yawns at human villainy
or, like the elderly at a matinee,
sleeps right through the film. Little
Falls, that lazy fox, lounges in wait.”
Having lived in McLean, Virginia, with Little Falls in his backyard, motifs of drowning, crossing, and crashing into it serve as a kind of enigmatic deadly force. A character in itself, the river indiscriminately swallows, threatens, and kills throughout these poems.
As a denunciation of the atrocities of war, and the privilege of our distance as we hear news of it from the comfort of our living rooms, “February Sojourn” was written for Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, the 14 year old Iraqi girl who, on March 12, 2006, was raped and murdered by five US soldiers after they had already killed her parents and younger sister in the next room. “Who can absorb the horror/three continents away?”
Some of the notable men to be found among the poems are: John Ehrlichman, Elliot Richardson, Frank Carlucci, General Alexander Haig, and William Safire. In his preface, Savarese says “My connection to these men exceeds mere proximity, though I lived next door to two of them. Their children were my friends. Corruption was a family plot in whose pool we swam. Greed tucked us in at night—with or without love.” More current Republicans include Brett Kavanaugh and both Presidents Bush. There’s even mention in “Go to Hell, Robert Mueller” of a certain gold toilet, written in a voice that sounds like an amalgamation of the poet’s and the gold toilet owner’s voice whose name I’ll stop short of saying here.
- Jessica Purdy