To say that Matthew Dickman’s new book, Husbandry, is about being a dad is to risk obscuring the desperate strangeness of early twenty-first-century single parenting. There are so few books, in the first place, that make fatherhood a primary focus—I think of Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, Daniel Johnson’s Shadow Act, Daniel Halpern’s Something Shining, and so much of the work of Craig Morgan Teicher, but even these collections juggle several other obsessions. (There are so many great individual poems on the matter, like Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” or Robert Hass’s “Song.”) In Dickman’s latest, on the other hand, fatherhood is in every poem. One of two children—Owen or Hamza—actually appears in almost every poem, and if they don’t they hover just outside it, looking in, so close you can hear their breathing, so to speak. Unlike Dickman’s Wonderland and Mayakovsky’s Revolver—the latter a cri de cœur about a brother’s suicide—the new book is written entirely in couplets. It draws its power from the shock of birth, the shock of two parents separating, and the tenderness, inset like a jewel amid that tumult, of the bond between a father and his children. Those couplets—often short lines, three or four words on average, often bearing disjunctive line breaks a la William Carlos Williams or Mina Loy—suggest the constancy, the relentlessness, of relationship, even as they elevator down the page, and even as time tumbles us forward.

The revelation in this book—a book of “aching precision,” as the jacket-flap copy has it—is that to have a child is, for better and worse, to have oneself. To have a chance to have oneself, to care for oneself, to re-see oneself, to tend to one’s own inherited wounds. If that’s not the great truth of parenthood, it’s the great risk of it. It’s not an easy, or even desirable, discovery. Here’s Dickman:

I lift my three-
year-old up into the air

and then catch
him but also catch

myself. In the story of
my life I put

my arm around
my thirteen-year-old

but also around
myself. When I feed

them I feed
myself. When I cool

a fevered forehead
with a cold

rag I cool my own
anger. When I leave

I also return to them
and return

to myself. I know
there are

really three children
in the story of my life.

I must make a home
for each of them.

The architecture of the poems is lace-like, I feel, as gentle as lace but as sharp as the edge of a piece of paper. The breaks don’t let the reader get comfortable. There is a jostle, a jarring-ness to the life of a parent, and to the reading of this poem—and it marks the poet’s refusal to make things perfect, an interest in the imperfect, in fact, or the messy. A seeking after the beauty of imperfection.

But the real power of the collection remains Dickman’s faithful—even into dark territory—observation of himself and his children. There are “so many ways / to eat the young,” he writes. A chilling thought. You wish more parents faced it. When you bring a child into the world, Dickman has told me, you give them not only a life but also a death. To know that is simply to know that a parent’s job may be first and foremost to foster the enchantment, to absorb the pain and suffering—for a little while, while such a thing can be done—that is so much in abundance in this world. Except, of course, that it seems a parent can’t help but be a part of that pain. Here’s a heartbreaking couplet—there are several knife-sharp single-couplet poems scattered in these pages—that makes an image of the moment one of the children finds out what his parents have decided, called “Telling Our Oldest”:

Sitting across from us, his back straight as a chair. His hands
clenched like a jaw.

It stands on its own, this two-liner, but the book, in its flow of couplets, could be read as one continuous poem, composed in chapters, but composed all in one rhythm, one spirit. One continuous breath—by turns tender, heartbroken, enraptured, delighted, angry, melancholy—all the turns of human family life. To look at those turns, to see them in granular detail, is not easy, but it’s one way to let the light of the real be a kind of healing, if not a source of hope.

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JESSE NATHAN: How did this book emerge? I’m curious what you would say the relationship is between the will to get something down in words versus, say, instinct or intuition or chance or the muse, or whatever name you would give it.

MATTHEW DICKMAN: Husbandry emerged out of the first year of the pandemic. Every Monday a small group of poetry friends and family would get together on Zoom to connect, share our lives, and write a poem together. Early on it was Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar, Sharon Olds, Michael McGriff, and myself. About a year or so into it we were happily joined by Major and Didi Jackson. We would all pick three or four random words, share them, then go away for forty-five minutes to make a poem out of them. At the end of our time that day we would share what we wrote. It wasn’t a workshop it was a “making-shop.” This was not only the first year of the pandemic but the first year after a separation between me and my children’s mother. It was natural that a lot of the poems I was writing were about parenting, single parenting, and the loss of a core relationship. I wasn’t planning to ever write this book, but, as with my other books, it just felt like whatever my life was being brought to stand face-to-face with ended up forming the narrative, the body of the book. That book became a book of poems about parenting, fatherhood, by someone who has always been in search of a father, someone who has always wanted to be a husband but hasn’t become one, and a love note, a sort of small archive of one aspect of my children’s lives and mine during a particularly strange and stressful time.

When making something I don’t sit around waiting for the muse. I believe in inspired moments but the muse I can do without. I have found that the important thing for me is to just sit down and write, to not expect some amazing outcome, some literary product, but to focus on the experience of making, of writing. If I have enjoyed a session of writing then it doesn’t matter what I’ve made. Someone could read it and think, Hey this is great, I feel this or they could read it and think, This guy fucking sucks. I have no control over that. All I can do is have a little influence on my own experience making a piece of writing and for me, that’s where the will begins and ends.

The more I read and write the less I feel I know shit about writing or poems or short stories or any of it. And that’s okay. I like the mystery of impulse, the old DNA of instinct and intuition. There’s enough in this world I need to know about: the lives of my children, the lives of my siblings, when a doctor’s appointment is happening, play dates, my teenager’s social and school life, my work schedules, all the birthdays for all the nieces and nephews, my children’s blood type, when bills are due—all of that I need to know about. But poetry, how I write a poem, or how I write prose, that I am more than happy to accept as a mystery. Parenting, being a father, is not a mystery, but art is. And how lucky is that?