Maybe it’s because my husband and our oldest son have such a complicated relationship, as do my brothers and my father—-hell, maybe all father-son relationships are complicated. Ask the great Russians.
Whatever it is, I love Jeff VandeZande‘s work, much of which explores in some way father-son relationships. This might be due to hints in the “About the Author” of a complex relationship with his own father, which relates that Jeff started writing poetry as a form of rebellion against his father, who wrote fiction.
I’ve been reading VandeZande’s work for several years now and anxiously await each new volume. American Poet is the best so far. VandeZande takes us into the interior life of a University of Michigan graduate facing the rough Michigan economy that is particularly rough for someone who chose to major in poetry.
Denver Hoptner’s mother is dead of cancer and his father, a working-class man part of the Boomer generation, is still grieving. Without her modulating influence, the two men move around each other uneasily in the quiet house.
The one unifying sound is the Tigers playing on the radio.
Denver wanders around his hometown, Saginaw, on foot and runs into the Theodore Roetke house. He doesn’t even know how to pronounce his name, but he is drawn to the figure of a poet who came from Saginaw and did something great. The city’s neglect of his childhood home, however, drags Denver down like his own misfortunes. Until he decides to do something about it. An open mic night. Crashing an insurance company convention. Climbing on the roof and screaming to the world to pay attention.
Along the way Denver encourages the poetry in others even as his own poetic voice refuses to speak. Heywood, the young African-American man whose brother was gunned down in the street and whose mother labors at the local hospital to make ends meet. Vance, his short-term boss at the hotel, who writes poems while he’s at deer camp each fall. And Heather, his ex-girlfriend whose success in the academic world of poetry he so bitterly envies, but whose poetry eventually restores him.
American Poet is a love poem for fathers, for following your passion, and for your hometown, no matter its warts.