“I was made // to be good like this, a father / before I was done being my father’s / son.” -from “Tracheotomy”
While most of the nation is wrangling over politics, some poets, like Craig Morgan Teicher, are reminding us of our human fragility in this pandemonium of voices. Poets like Teicher are forced by circumstance to cultivate a stillness of spirit for fear of inhaling or exhaling too carelessly and thereby breaking the already frayed cord of life struggling to hold itself together—that frayed cord being the speaker’s son so consciously observed in this 88-page manuscript of poems, The Trembling Answers.
The speaker in these poems, a father trembling in and out of his doubts, terror, and need, dissects himself, both grieving and celebrating the parts. Some of these parts are versions of his relational identity with his children, his parents, and his spouse; some of them are versions of his relational identity with himself.
Such as, for instance, his teenage self as described in “Self-Portrait Beside Myself,” a poem in which the speaker wrestles with his dual desires to throw caution to the wind and “fuck like mad,” yet who, standing over his barely living son fed “through a hole in his tummy,” feels “quiet” without a “need to be me or anyone.” Teicher’s language is polished and sincere as he straddles this emotional tightrope between life and death with his son, communicating through his pain an unexplainable joy only understood by those who have stood at the edge of the grave and clung to hope—the joy of realizing the value invested in a single soul, a value that can be so quickly swallowed and snatched, but never vanquished.
I read these poems as resistance to the clash and clang of hard words meant to overthrow oppositional arguments. It is the hallmark of our current political landscape, and while these arguments are necessary to engage for the sake of social justice and preserved liberties, battle lines always divide. But that thin veil that separates us from being known and the unknowing tends to disrupt our divisions and inspire us to gather in awe, prayers, and reminiscence since, all of a sudden, we recall our common vulnerability.
When looking to the future and a possible afterlife, the speaker admits in “Tomorrow and Tomorrow Again”:
Of course I don’t know what
happens to us: if we survive in the
hands of love; if Cal and Simone
and all the trembling answers
those questions entail; whether
by time or by disease or by
an atom bomb right in the eye. Is it
possible death could be thrilling
and fun? And after could there be
something somewhere and what
will we do if we see each other
And when looking backward into his childhood, he is a bit surprised to realize that “. . .there was love and joy— / there had always been. My mom / was fun, my dad sort of funny, and / I never doubted, despite my misery, / that I belonged to a normal, happy / family. . . .” In these poems, Teicher brings together memories and fragile hopes for his family. He hallows each remembrance, and observes every turn of thought or phrase.
The poetry itself takes several forms, largely free-verse and left-justified as columns consume the left side of each page; however, some in small separated stanzas, others as couplets, and still others as variegated lines parsed out across the page with considerable white space. “Apprehension” is a unique form with numbered single lines running the length of two pages.
You can’t prove it but
this is reality.
And so it continues: “art . . . as serious as childhood” proclaims the speaker in “Why Poetry: A Partial Autobiography” when speaking of his grade school art teacher’s “lifelong pursuit of childhood through art.”
Teicher writes three such autobiographies as well as two self-portraits, clearly a man seeking self while facing possible tragedy and the growing awareness that he is losing all youthfulness while also feeling an urge to be wholly youthful again. He laments in the first poem “Every Turning,” “my dream / of playing piano is already / impossible, as is / my wise plan never // to fall prey to credit card debt.” The speaker measures what cannot be done or undone at this point, but also, when comparing life to the work of poetry in another “Why Poetry: A Partial Autobiography,” that “my life / like all lives, [is] unfinished.”
Because, says the speaker is made tense when “reading / poetry, knowing how much I miss, misunderstand.” He may as well be speaking of our fleeting existence—as I believe he is. So much is missed, so much misunderstood. And the fact that this particular poet has waited to express his internal tensions—what he deems darkness in yet another “Why Poetry: A Partial Autobiography,” has made him “a good candidate for poetry:
into which one’s latent
monstrousness can seep
like moisture into good wood
for decades, a lifetime.
My monstrousness is rotting harmlessly now
in my poetry.
This latent monstrousness is perhaps something he could die from since “In novels / people die because of what they feel” but not so “[i]n life” where
People die when
their bodies conk out,
exhausted machines that living
expends. And what
happens when people feel
their feelings in life?
The speaker beseeches his wife:
dear Brenda, my love, nothing
happens, I’m afraid. I’m sorry. And afraid.
A small breeze born in the heart
gently bends a blade of grass
and no one hears a word.
Such a strong statement concerning life’s passage, as well as the poet’s greatest question and fear: Will anyone hear a word of what I leave on the page? Will my art outlive me? Will it retain value to its hearers even after I’m gone?
These trembling poems, containing more questions than answers, will certainly live on. If you’re seeking art that transcends the political and economic stirrings of our day, art that stirs a renewed awareness of what it means to be strictly human—desirable and relational as such—then The Trembling Answers is a book worth contemplating over a quiet weekend at home, the sun saturating a nearby window, the sound of children or neighbors cavorting outdoors and, on the table, a tall glass of freshly squeezed lemonade to sip between each thought-provoking phrase.