You'll laugh, you'll cry

Paul Constant

April 26, 2017

Patricia Lockwood is one of the best poets working in America today. Plenty of critics try to diminish that standing by dinging Lockwood for successfully using the internet like an adult human in the year 2017. In the first sentence of her review of Lockwood’s new book, Priestdaddy, Financial Times critic Suzi Feay praises Lockwood backhandedly for “her zany mastery of Twitter.” James Parker in his Atlantic review of Priestdaddy sniffs that “Like Donald Trump, [Lockwood] does pretty well on Twitter.”

The thing is, Lockwood writes poems the way people talk in real life, and critics, for the most part, hate that. They always have. As Kenneth M. Price observed in his book Walt Whitman: The Contemporary Reviews, Whitman was criticized for writing “passages which sound like a lecture on the obstetrics of lust” by critics of his time. They called him an “outrage upon the decencies of literature,” and accused Whitman of “beastliness.” The New York Tribune concluded that “no perfectly sane person” would believe “Whitman has any new message to deliver to the world.”

So it is with Lockwood. Her poetry will long outlast Twitter, but Twitter always captures the headlines in her reviews. (And, in fact, I’m contributing to the problem by ranting about Twitter up top, too. Goddamnit, I’m done. The word “Twitter” will not appear any more in this essay. Moving on.)

Before, I said that most critics don’t know what to do with Lockwood because she sounds like an “adult human in 2017.” That’s not quite right. In fact, they don’t know what to do with Lockwood because she sounds like an adult woman in 2017. She talks openly about rape and the patriarchy and the unspoken requirements that have always been expected of women. Critics hate that kind of stuff most of all — maybe even more than her use of modern language, Lockwood’s candor seems to drive critics crazy. The New Yorker has fretted about her becoming an oversharer. Parker just called her work “post-porn, a kind of ironic biological burble.”

Make no mistake: all these thousands of tiny condecensions that you’ll find in every Lockwood profile and review are exactly what it looks like when the status quo pushes back at an artist who is pushing forward. This critical response is conventional wisdom’s primal scream, the noise made by a ferocious wounded beast caught in the trap of modernity and lashing out at anyone daring or dumb enough to get close. One day, scholars will look back at how Lockwood was welcomed by her contemporaries, and these reviews will sound as malignant and regressive as those that whimpered about Whitman’s phallus obsession.

So I’ll say again: Patricia Lockwood is one of the best poets working in America today. Her poems are as alive and as energetic as poetry has ever been. If you haven’t read her second collection, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, you must. This is what it looks like when poetry interacts with the culture, when poetry is as necessary to the immediate cultural conversation as movies and comics and music. This is the book that young poets need to be stealing from and responding to and arguing with, if poetry is going to spread outward into malls and streets and multiplexes and bars. This is how poetry conquers the nation.

But with that said, Lockwood’s latest book isn’t poetry. It’s memoir. Priestdaddy, broadly, is the story of Lockwood’s family. More precisely, it’s about a fairly short period of time in which she and her husband are forced to move in with her parents after a medical emergency.

Lockwood is such a natural poet that it’s hard to imagine her as a successful memoirist. She admits as much very early in Priestdaddy. “I had never been much interested in story,” she writes…

…so I had yet to realize I was participating in one: that I would see rising action, twists, and climax; that there would be conflict, revenge, and resolution; but above all, that I was the engine powering it forward. The landscape slid past me because I was moving. I was keeping the I upright.

A memoirist admitting early in a memoir that she’s not too interested in story is kind of like a pilot announcing from the cockpit that aviation has never been one of her guiding interests. It’s the kind of sentence that makes you slouch down in your seat and imagine all the horrible things that are about to happen to you.

Thankfully, Priestdaddy is a successful, turbulence-free flight. Though Lockwood basically admits she has no idea what she’s doing, the second part of the above quote explains how she handles her memoir: she is not just the pilot — she’s the plane, and the passengers, and the air the plane flies through.

This is a book about Lockwood’s family — or, at least, about her perception of her family. Her father is a Catholic priest, a larger-than-life conservative who loves guns and action movies and electric guitars. (He found the priesthood after watching The Exorcist.) But while the volume is turned up in Priestdaddy — the jokes are funnier, the characters are outsized — Lockwood’s still feels like a relatively recognizable experience. You never doubt that anyone in this family loves each other. They are a functional American family unit, bloated with in-jokes and kludged together out of traditions and memories and a genial fondness that sometimes turns prickly with irritation.

Priestdaddy doesn’t have a narrative, exactly. The force that pushes it forward is Lockwood’s surprising language, and her detective’s ability to spot a single small damning clue in a room full of distractions. It’s a book where the author keeps you company, confiding in you and entertaining you and making you feel like the best listener in the history of ears.

I read Priestdaddy in two great gulps. I slapped my way through the first half of the book in a sugar-induced blur on Easter Sunday. The first half of the book matched my pastel mood that day: it’s light and amusing, a funny David Sedaris-style family portrait that introduces you to all the characters and establishes a light tone, albeit delivered with gorgeous prose:

Because my father wasn’t allowed to hunt hippies, he decided to settle for hunting deer instead. It was a good compromise, all things considered. Deer were the pacifists of the animal kingdom. They sat around doing weeds all day and didn’t even try to get jobs. The males of the species pranced and ate salad and had a hundred kids they didn’t know about. In November, a long line of them marched to the polls, leaves held delicately in their mouths, each marked with the name of a Green Party candidate. A deer, in short, was a peace sign made out of meat, and the only way to fight it was with bullets.

But just calling it funny isn’t doing it justice. The first half of Priestdaddy is hilarious in the traditional sense. I laughed until I cried multiple times — at one point, I was helplessly shuddering with laughter until my face was moist with tears and snot. This could be the most I’ve laughed at a book in decades.

The secret comedy weapon of Priestdaddy — indeed, the secret weapon of the whole book — is Lockwood’s mother. Though she doesn’t get title credit, her mother takes up a tremendous amount of space in these pages. While Lockwood’s dad is upstairs wailing on his guitar, her mother is downstairs worrying about diseases (“There’s a new kind of diarrhea, and it’s killing senior citizens,” she tells Lockwood) and taking care of the day-to-day business of parenthood.

As an adult, Lockwood revels in her mother’s weird opinions, often ceding the spotlight to her entirely. It’s all Lockwood can do to just record what she says and report it back to the reader. Here, her mother gets into a fight with the copy on a box of granola at the grocery store:

“Don’t TELL me it’s all-natural. So is CRAP from a CAT,” and shoves the box back into the stack as if she’s administering a punch to breakfast itself.

There’s a magical kind of equilibrium there — the mother setting up a joke by being broad and outrageous, the daughter knocking down the joke with the absurdist idea of punching breakfast. An intergenerational punchline: it’s like a memoirist’s cover of “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

I made time for the second half of Priestdaddy early one morning, after a series of painful leg cramps chased all the sleep out of me. Rising before the sun, bleary and exhausted, I turned on a reading light and sprawled on a couch and read while I massaged my aching calves and chewed my fingertips to bloody ribbons.

Priestdaddy’s second half is more serious, more thoughtful, more tense than the beginning. This is where Lockwood gets into the complicated issues — the Catholic church’s history of child abuse, the matter of abortion, the question (or, I guess, more appropriately, the answer) of mortality.

This is a more thoughtful Lockwood than the giggling guide of the first few chapters, digging into the questions that have dogged her family — and, let’s be honest, America — since the very beginning. It all seems to come down, for Lockwood, to one very familiar question: To be, or not to be?

And again, her mother takes a leading role in the quest for an answer. As Lockwood wrestles with the idea of abortion, she looks at a photo of her large family, which began when Lockwood’s mother got pregnant at 18.

“I chose it,” she says with great stateliness, the way she sometimes does. “If I hadn’t, you’d still be out there.” Still out there, somewhere in the night — an idea that just missed her, an undelivered piece of mail.

You’re either a slab of throbbing meat or you’re an unrealized dream. There are no middle paths, here. This part of the book brought tears to my eyes without the attendant laughter of the first half. As the sun came up, Lockwood coaxed me into sobs for the lost life of a man who I never met, and then the last lines of Priestdaddy found me crying again for all the tragedies yet to happen in this terminal condition we call life.

Priestdaddy, in its own way, reminded me of the work of another poet who dabbled in memoir about faith and mortality: Thomas Lynch. In his books The Undertaking and Bodies In Motion and at Rest, Lynch discussed his twin callings — as a poet and as an undertaker in a small town — as a single purpose.

The blend of ceremony and literature, of death and creativity, in Lynch’s books mirrors what Lockwood does here. Poets, it turns out, are exactly the kind of people you want at funerals. They’ll drink all the wine and start a slapfight with your most racist uncle, but they’ll also say something beautiful and horrifying and consoling and true that will make every mourner in the room catch their breath at the exact same moment.

Make no mistake: Lockwood is, and will always be, a poet first. But Priestdaddy is of a piece with her work. It has been a very long time since I’ve read a memoir this alive — this funny, this sad, this thoughtful, this beautifully written. It expands on the work she’s done in Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, and it will likely lay a meaningful groundwork for her future poetry collections, as well. Priestdaddy elucidates and contextualizes the life and work of one of our very best poets, and it does so with style and grace.

Now that Priestdaddy has taken up residence in my head, I keep coming back to that quote about narratives. Though Lockwood says she has no interest in story, it seems to me that's kind of beside the point. Story is happening to all of us all the time. Even when we die, our story keeps going. Story is never finished with us.

Books in this review:
  • Priestdaddy
    by Patricia Lockwood
    Riverhead Books
    May 01, 2017
    352 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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