Lately, when reading the work of poets I know, as well as poets whose names I’ve just encountered for the first time through Southern Humanities Review’s submission queue, I’ve been noticing how many poems are about family. Family, of course, is hardly an obscure theme at any time; family has always shaped who people are, and thus, their writing. But, during the pandemic, when many people are keeping their distance and staying within their homes, finding connections even through a categorization as incontrovertible and intimate as family seemed meaningful. These connections may be between readers and writers who share the experience or fear of losing their aging parents, those who feel they might lose their sense of self in the unremitting role of caretakers to their children, or the many who contemplate the difficulties of closing distances between family members because adequately expressing love is always a near impossibility.
Here, Caroline Chavatel’s long poem about buildings and their burning (and circus tents, among other things) nearly reaches its end before the father, who formed the first place where the speaker lived as a child, is named, though of course his influence has been present since the beginning. Thu Nguyen’s poem wonders how a person can think about anything else—such as fixing the ceiling of her adult home that has fallen in and crushed her desk—when worries about a parent are on her mind.
Travis Truax writes in a poem about the route through the Virginia landscape that a father chooses to take his son home from church: “What bridges do / is take the open palms / of two places, and give them / a single story.” Naazneen Diwan writes with similar reverence about memories of a grandmother and Bombay, prayer beads and “billowing skirt / and mountain passes purple silk I tuck into / when valleys turn abyss / and names of God / routine.”
Bernardo Wade, titling his poem for a deceased uncle, “God, please make him leave,” wishes for anything but to erase the relative from mind. William Fargason evokes the ghostly presence of a deer whose blood was smeared on a child’s face and the father who shot it, “cocked rifle always against his shoulder,” which remain hanging in the present tense.
Austin Segrest, an American Southerner by birth viewing an island on the West Coast, writes indirectly about a mother who has passed away and the bond between her and her son that continues, “This door to remain unlocked / during business hours, signs on the mainland read. / God’s tenseless infinitive, wielded as imperative.” Ernest O. Ògúnyẹmí, a writer from Nigeria, addresses a father that may be greater than any one human when he asks at the end of his poem naming wonders of the natural world, “is it love, / this thing I have for my father?”
Matt Vekakis writes of still being young enough to be comforted by his mother feeding him and to try to give violence other, kinder names. Anna V. Q. Ross writes of a woman stuck in a too-often-repeated traffic jam, thinking of too-often-repeated sexual violence against women, hearing her daughter ask “Mom, when are we going to move?” and wishing we could progress beyond and break patterns.
Meanwhile Chelsea Dingman writes of driving, utterly alone in a whiteout, and thinking of her mother, “Each mile, moving further / away, I used to want / to know where I began. Now, / I only want somewhere / to soften against me.” And I am glad, as editor, I get to steer the conversation back around to let Truax reply with his driving father who made sure “we learned something softer / than just another road.”
Phrases in the title of this feature are from Anna V. Q. Ross’s “Family Letter About This Unit.”