I can’t remember which mutual friend emailed a few years ago to suggest I should meet up with Caleb Klaces, who had recently moved to York. I had admired Caleb’s work in Granta not long before and loved his first collection, Bottled Air (Eyewear, 2013). Our conversation for Prac Crit focused on an extract from his new book, Fatherhood, which will be published by Test Centre in 2019. For this interview, maybe the only unusual thing about meeting up for another of our poetry chats was hitting the record button on my phone. When it came time, we had been catching up at his kitchen table, while his older daughter dipped grapes in frothy milk and shared her thoughts on starting school. The sun hummed from their garden patch and I was offered a bag of fresh rhubarb. When Caleb suggested his daughter’s little desk could do with tidying, she returned instead with The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business. She turned pages for me and summarised the plot, in which the title creature searches for whoever left the ‘sausage’ on his head. The text is full of puns forced from the German original – a gift from friends, Caleb explained, and admitted he feels a bit uneasy reading it. ‘But she loves it,’ he laughed. If you’ve met Caleb, you will immediately recognise the point below about gentlenessas a deep trait of his character, in the care of his laugh and articulations. Of course, it’s in his poems too.
I actually find the opening of this poem quite unsettling. Before we get to the ‘I’ that carries most of the poem, the first stanza or first scene has these men (‘the men’). There’s a sense of threat, at the start of a poem that turns out to be about parenting. Could you talk about what’s going on here?
I’d imagined a longer scene where two men have driven out together at night in search of firewood. One of them has left a child at the other’s house, where he and his family are staying, because their own house is flooded. There’s an ironic hunter-gatherer, atavistic thing going on. They sit in the car and feel sort of forlorn and lost, because they’ve failed to find wood. The cinematic trope of reaching inside the glove compartment – and revealing baby wipes, a symbol of something like gentleness and care – points to something the larger book project is trying to think about, which is how to live and write with extreme gentleness. In particular, to think about what a gentle masculinity might be.
That’s so interesting, because the bigger question I wanted to ask is about the long tradition of birth or parenting poems. I thought of Yeats, ‘Once more the storm is howling…’ (from ‘Prayer for My Daughter’) or Maggie Smith’s ‘Good Bones’, about the things she keeps from her children. Starting with a sense of the world as a difficult, violent place, is there a need to clear a space to protect the child?
Immediately, I think, ‘Yes, but you also have to protect the child from yourself!’ There is the desire to shield a child from aspects of the world outside, of course, which is also there powerfully in a recent book I was reading by Andrea Brady, Mutability: Scripts for Infancy. What was new for me, though, was like a fear of the knives in the kitchen drawer, when faced with something so fragile, within the home. The question for me became more about how the poem intervenes in the domestic space, between father and daughter, rather than the poem as a charm against an external threat.
And the poem goes in a very different direction from Yeats’s, which becomes so heavy-handed with guidance and what he wants for his daughter. I like your more passive stance, the ‘gentleness’ you describe, of being receptive and there for whatever comes.
The title here is from Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, which, at other points in the project, I get annoyed with explicitly. The ‘extreme silentness’ is that of a sleeping infant, Coleridge’s son, which interferes with the great poet’s meditation. I recognise this feeling – the tense sleep of an infant does ‘vex’ thought. But it’s really their absolute dependence, typically expressed in the loud noises they make, that is, for me anyway, ‘extreme’, not their occasional silentness. If the baby wakes up, Coleridge won’t be the one dealing with it anyway. So, the question was: what would a poetry be like that’s actually responding to the creature when it’s awake?
And there’s such an emphasis on sound throughout – noises and voices, or words or music – often triggering actions and responses in the speaker. In the next stanza, the ‘first noises’, which I heard as the child’s first cry, summon the speaker into the poem.
At different stages of development, there are different ways an infant summons a parent, which is such a nice way of putting it. A young person’s way with language reminds you how little words have to do with conveying information. A baby seems to derive huge comfort from some words and is spooked by others. A baby nurtures and insists on apparent mistakes, not accepting the language as given. You learn the pleasures of this smudged language and I think that comes most significantly into the form of this poem. It tries repeatedly to become coherent prose, but keeps breaking down, or running on in ways that maybe it shouldn’t, kind of haltingly.
The long stanzas do cohere, but they’re made up of halting sentences, as you say, and a lot of phrasemaking, often led by idiomatic rhythms. Is this a self-consciousness about your own language that comes from interacting with a child?
Whether intentionally or not, as a parent you become a performed version of yourself. Initially, it’s the performance of being a parent, because you don’t know what that means. Even when you settle into the role, you have to exaggerate and break down your own language, in order to be understood. So, the whole household experiments together in a shifting performance, sometimes wild and sometimes tightly self-conscious.
And the poem ends with ‘returning to the stage / in costume / as ourselves’! That performativity seems to work at the level of language at other points. The poem felt to me like it redresses some of those psychoanalytic formulas about the child’s development as an autonomous subject, coming to identity through the parents’ language. Here, you write: ‘the word “no” comes months before the word “yes”’, and it’s the father who is ‘cried into adulthood’. Is it as much a process of the parent coming into a new kind of being? It feels like a mutual construction of identity.
I don’t have very clear memories from before I was maybe a teenager. So, I became really interested in this idea that the child only starts to remember once they have a stable ‘I’ to which they can attach memories. But being unsure if I ever got to that myself, I started to wonder if it could be a shared project between me and the baby, developing our pronouns together.
Is that something that the speaker in this poem wants? Is the final ‘thank you’ for the child, for helping to ground their identity in this relationship?
I think so, although it’s interesting you would read it as a thank you to the child. For me, it was more for the reader or audience: ‘Thank you for listening to this nonsense’. You know how, if you go to The Globe, the actors come out and they’re still in costume, but they’re sort of transformed into real people. They’re all relieved. They might even do a little dance. My wife loves that bit, and after she drew my attention to it I felt like that all the time, as though I’d revealed myself as a real person, even though I can’t yet take off my costume.
The lyric ‘you’ feels just as important as the lyric ‘I’, in terms of how the address positions the speaker. Right towards the end, the line ‘I can let you let me into the garden’ seems so precise with its looping pronouns, though at other times a ‘she’ might be the child or the mother. Is there a sense of situating the ‘I’ within the primal structure of this triangle? And does this call for a different kind of ‘I’?
The way that John Ashbery, for example, uses pronouns has always been attractive to me. But it wasn’t until I had the experience of this domestic triangle, of being dependent on and needed by two other people in ways that thrilled but baffled me, that what might seem like a technique or play with pronouns takes on a very different necessity. It seemed really important to find ways of constructing the persons always in relation to one another, and to see those relational identities as essential, not secondary, to the bodies that share a home, or the bodies that share a planet.
The pronouns also seem related to the poem’s sense of gender dynamics, especially around the division of domestic labour. The ‘I’ arrives in the second stanza with this fantasy of a ‘painless birth’. And meanwhile the wife and baby are ‘preparing’. It’s such an interesting word for the work they’re doing. Is this where the division of labour begins, in very literal terms?
And long before that! A much broader issue is that we’ve inherited certain hard-won expectations of gender equality without the economic or legal changes that would allow them to be put into practice. We feel ‘prepared’ but the society is not. What I think that leads to, in part, is a portrayal of masculinity, particularly of fatherhood, which I love in certain contemporary work, but which often portrays men who attempt to care as flapping about and ridiculous. I think of Ben Lerner’s overanxious young men. Did you watch Motherland on BBC? It is a comedy and the only male parent actually engaged with his children is, of course, completely pathetic. I get that there’s a certain necessary rebalancing, but I also wanted to give the ‘I’ a kind of dignity in this position, while resisting the urge to steady the ground beneath the feet. Because, of course, it isn’t steady.
I see that unsteadiness in so much of the language. You put together adjectives that seem to undermine each other: ‘Reckless, pedantic love’ at one point. Later, you imagine ‘today will be as sweet and as compromised as the past’. And lines that sit right in the middle of the poem, where the speaker is driving home (from the hospital, presumably) say:
I read that as a renunciation of the violence hinted at in the beginning of the poem, but I see what you mean about a helpless masculinity as well, as maybe an inversion of that violence.
My child’s dependence on me and my wife confronted me with the fact that I was once utterly dependent on my own mother. I think, for many men, that’s at the root of a certain anger – the position of helplessness that they were all in at some point. I wondered if an attempt to renounce or push that away drives a lot of the violent hatred that a lot of men still feel toward women. Those kinds of contradictions – enforcing gentleness – are a way I found to entertain not quite being over that. The other side of protecting a child, day to day, is the requirement to give them a stable framework to test their feelings and urges against. This is when you start to feel actively grateful for discovering a domestic education already inside you, of songs and bits of rhyme and cliché. At the same time, it startles you to find yourself blithely singing, for example, an essentially violent line like ‘the men on the bus go shh shh shh…’ Earlier in the book, there’s an image of an infant sitting under a printer, happily chewing the first draft of the book itself – which was another way of thinking about the ambivalence of inheritance. The paper contains formaldehyde.
The poem does seem concerned with these social pressures on parents. There’s the image of ‘Happy / chastened fathers’, who sort of mansplain the ball pit (noting ‘the balls in the bit are imported from Denmark’). So, we have fathers who don’t know what to say to each other, but it’s also as if the speaker is comparing themselves.
That’s totally a thing. We’re made to think of phatic language or small talk as a kind of female preserve, but then you take your child to a baby group and you’re completely at sea, trying to talk about your journey there or whatever. So, I wanted that kind of language to come in, the way it drifts, but also the way that men so often cauterise the conversation. I don’t want to imply that this represents a great difficulty for men, though, because, in comparison with the pressures on women, there’s a huge, huge imbalance.
There’s a striking line in the bigger manuscript, which is echoed in this poem, where the narrator of a longer prose section says, ‘My adult male body was large and hard and milkless.’ Then this poem has the line: ‘My ink is borrowed milk.’ In that earlier section, you describe it as a ‘biological lack’, almost with a need to compensate. Is that where masculinity diverges, towards compensating with either anger or gentleness?
That’s a lack I really felt. And it was shocking for a number of revealing reasons. I was told once by a stranger in the street to put a hat on my baby, and I realised, once my rage had subsided, that I had probably never been patronised by a woman before. The undercutting of certain assumptions was – as a white man – strange and unfamiliar. It also presented a challenge to my understanding of identity as entirely contingent and constructed. It made me see how that theoretical truism might in itself be a kind of barrier to thinking, or even a patriarchal defence against the female body. There’s an undeniable and particular power in the relationship between a mother and child – in this case, a daughter. I became very interested in biological flows, like what literally flows between people and the world. There’s poo and piss and milk everywhere, and phlegm and sick, and of course all the things you can’t see, like microbes and pollen – and these flows are lovely. You become aware of a body as a relatively stable pattern of elements, which is constantly changing as it leaks and accumulates matter. Your question makes me think that writing the poems might have been a way I could join in the joyful leaking.
The word ‘animal’ comes up a couple of times. I thought of Plath’s poem ‘You’re’, with the bird-like, fishy baby. In this heightened bodily awareness, does the child also return us to a more creaturely experience?
I found myself lecturing undergraduates about the metaphors in ‘You’re’ the week my wife gave birth to our second child, completely unaware of what was at stake for me in the poem. The first time, I was wholly unprepared for the physicality of being a parent. I hadn’t conceived of parenthood as being primarily, in the first six or twelve months, a physical thing. That was really shocking to me, in ways that I can’t quite work out. A lot of the project has been trying to work out how you might write that.
Can I ask then, with all of this domestic labour, is there a related sense of the work the poem is doing?
Well, the way the project came about – I was working freelance but not really working at all when my first child was born. So, I had time with her, but within that there were also these little moments of silentness, which felt very precious, and which I could use. So, I wrote a thing, which was a very dense prose piece. I wanted to get writing about this consuming experience out of the way, so I could get back to my very earnest poetical concerns of the time, such as the United Nations. And obviously the opposite happened. Once I started writing, the world flowed through the small thing. It was very different from anything I’d ever written before, in that it was a companion to the experience. I wrote lots of it on an iPhone while lying on a library carpet, ignoring my child in order to put her into words.
A rubbish version would be the Romantic sense in which a male writer describes their work as a kind of conception or of giving birth, where the labour that’s involved in creative production is being compared with biological reproduction.
Yeah, and I would never want to suggest that this is anything like giving birth – partly because seeing someone give birth destroys giving birth as a metaphor. It’s not at all like writing. Also, creation in that sense has such a long build-up. I mean, there’s an obvious gestation, and the whole history of the sperm and the egg. The whole history of my Russian ancestor, who fled St Petersburg before the First World War, which I also try to write about in the larger project. The incredible birth chapter in Ulysses spools out like that so well.
So, is there a sense that the work of writing and recording and bearing witness and reconfiguring these things is part of that care?
In its most generous articulation, I think you could say that. On the one hand, writing for me has always meant exploration rather than description. On the other hand, I think that with this experience I did want to make some claim on real life – a motivation about which I’m much more ambivalent. I introduced some key fictional aspects to the work, contaminants that are precious to me. I think one of the reasons why I was working in so many different forms is that I kept having to reinvent what was happening. I wanted to find new ways of interacting with my experience as it went along.
And the poem seems nicely obsessed with time in that way. We get the birth, then the development of language. It sort of skips around. But then, right towards the end, it seems very insistent on presentness. The last few sections repeat the word ‘today’, then have the infant ‘Busy working / the present’. It’s such a nice phrase – with the double-sense of working in the present, but also producing it, pushing experience forward in this active way. Does that figure into the writing process?
It’s partly about the way children constantly snap you back to the present, because they need your attention. They coat everything with time. I wanted to include that feeling in the poem – and not to understand it as damage to ranging, silent meditation, in Coleridge’s sense, but to revel in the new kind of interrupted present-tense thinking you have to do with a child. There’s this funny feeling as if time had become hitched up to them, because they have to exist all the time.
I gather you can’t just switch them off and come back later.
And they have to be accounted for all the time. At some points I was really trying to get down to a granular, most basic unit of time, as though I’d lost the switch that allows a mind to turn off certain inputs and concentrate on others. And failing, obviously. But this poem was an attempt to do something different, more about jumping between times, surprised by growth.
With all of these different interests we’ve talked about in mind, can you say a bit more about how you generated this work? Is it something that could be drafted in a linear way, or plotted out?
I started with lots of fragments in a phone. Then there was an attempt to collage those in some way. Then there was throwing that collage away, because I just had loads of great (to me) things put together, and not a poem. And then I started again and wrote in a linear way. I wanted to hold myself to account to that rootedness in the present we’re talking about, by writing it in order. But then finally, it became the coda to a book. Working on it again, it became clear to me that it was a kind of summary of the book. I’m always quite moved, for some reason, by summary and paraphrase. Spark Notes guides are often really poignant.
Or Wikipedia synopses of films you’ve seen a million times.
Exactly. People say paraphrasing a poem is like a terrible sin.
Or that poetry is that which can’t be paraphrased.
I started to think there might be a kind of beauty in a paraphrase that can’t be paraphrased.
For someone reading this poem on its own, does the summarising impulse have a recognisable timbre? Is there a language of summary, even if you don’t have the thing being summarised?
You kind of know it when you see it, don’t you?
I guess it’s a kind of bearing witness, maybe to the labour of the text again, sharing what was important to you. I love the particular details people focus on. Your summary might be very different from my summary.
Completely! I think it moves in two directions at once. There’s something deathly about a summary, because it seems to kill the original. If this is all someone remembers, the experience is gone. On the other hand, someone is remembering. Someone is paying attention. Particularly those kinds of Wikipedia summaries, where people have clearly loved something so much that they really want to tell someone else. The fact that people bother is touching. Of course, it’s funny to say that about my own text, that I’m bothering to summarise it. I’m constructing a corpse, but it’s the corpse of a loved one.
That does reframe the ‘thank you’ at the end for me. I’d been reading it as something more sentimental, but actually, the relationship with the reader needs to be caring as well. Or it wants to be.
Yeah, and I was very aware that it’s like people telling you about their dreams – which are also always summaries, aren’t they? People talking about their kids is notoriously boring and annoying.
So, having to justify that time that the reader has spent.
They’ve probably got children they should be looking after…
Okay, final question. Do you imagine your kids reading these poems someday? And would you want them to?
I was concerned that my daughter couldn’t collaborate with the writing. Or at least if she did (and I think that she did) it wasn’t consensual exactly. Some of her particular language is there throughout the book, and that was a way of trying to include her.
So, she’s already part of the process.
Yeah, but it’s not her choice. Maybe the project will only be complete if and when she reads it. I don’t know how either of us will feel about it then.
To relieve the men
the dark rustles.
is the breeze passed from
sea and hill and wood
to the car to the beard.
It is difficult to feel the beard because
only murderers and the famous
Enemies hide their secrets in their bodies.
You keep in touch with yours by way of orgasm. Words
to clean up the mess.
While I dreamt of a painless birth
my wife prepared,
the baby prepared. The health services
punchline. The sound envelope
delivered the baby
into the tiny patter of the maternal voice.
Same warm folds of baby talk
cradled lucky bacteria
On hearing the first noises
into the room.
I wanted to flood
I wanted to embarrass the world
with what it is like for an infant.
My secret is
I don’t know what the world is like for an infant.
Which is why we listen to music.
cells [who?] scream to protect
of two felt triangles
and crayon lips. Reckless, pedantic love
sprouts from atmosphere
everywhere with cells. The father
by his child. The word ‘no’ arrives months before
the word ‘yes’. Later
she takes herself
to the naughty step,
the first pulpit.
those who died in the floods
and those who survived
as though the line was writ in water.
My ink is borrowed milk.
On the drive home
I wanted to enforce
without comparison. I wanted to make
without firing a shot.
Some minor words would be my own.
I want to stay here
gone. Inside me
note the balls in the pit are imported from Denmark.
It is unclear how this work should be rewarded.
It is unclear which parts, if any, should be passed on.
In the evening’s quiet kitchen
the parents are full of questions,
after the day inventing answers.
Ludicrous, juicy, unknown thoughts
share the carer
and the one who cares back.
Your bodies float
on the day, braced
I speak instead of my junction off the M1
like a pair of scissors,
parts screwed together.
Hiccups, for example
I just know that today she is looking for peace.
The objective is to love the animals
back into the trees.
And just when it seems
today will be as sweet and as compromised as the past,
she loves consequence
and no consequence,
The room relaxes
as she invents the room.
I can let you let me into the garden.
Our parts share the best lines,
but end differently, are different people.
We return to the stage
[They dance together]
First Published by Prac Crit.