Cover of "Daddy Long Legs"

Cover of "Daddy Long Legs" (June 14, 2013)

Several years ago I taught my son how to ride a bike on a wide trail that runs through the woods near our home. Over and over I sprinted behind him down the path with my hand on the small of his back as he pedaled and coasted and wobbled and dipped. It was awkward, because I was both slightly pushing him forward and trying to hold him up — to both keep him going and keep him from falling, pushing him away, yet holding on to him. I kept yelling out instructions to prevent a fall, but he didn't hear them. Finally he yelled back at me, something I had once yelled at my Dad: "Let go. Let go."

Most parents live in this paradox: We are trying to hold on to our children even while letting them go. Yet we are still children ourselves, who still hear our parents' voices (often within our own). These themes are artfully addressed in a new memoir and a new poetry collection about the joys and struggles of fatherhood.

This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.

Poet Todd Davis wrote "In the Kingdom of the Ditch" in the shadow of his own father's death from cancer, so readers can feel the darkness of loss. Yet Davis also writes from the soft light of his two sons' adolescence, as they grow into adulthood. Somehow this in-between point of view works well, as it leads the reader deeper into the difficult gifts of being a father.

In a poem titled "What I Told My Sons after My Father Died" Davis writes:

My father taught me the names for trees,

which in turn I've taught my sons.

That's what it was like after he stopped breathing.

A bee disappears down the flower's mouth.

Although we can't see it, the bee's still there.

Since Davis also is a naturalist who knows well the Pennsylvania landscape where he lives, his poetry also often addresses the human animal's role in nature. As readers encounter the ordinary miracles that Davis reveals as both father and son within "the kingdom of the ditch," they also are reminded that the human is not apart from nature but a part of it. In these poems death is not only separation, or "the end," but also marks the human species' inherent relatedness to the whole of creation.

"The cord that binds us to this world frays and unravels," Davis writes. All things die and fall apart, but the parts go on. Death is also a kind of beginning. He mines this theme in this excerpt from his poem "Consciousness: An Assay"

We move toward absence: sound of wind

in leafless trees, the last dragonfly sliding

around our heads. To the left a pileated

woodpecker knocks on the door of a sassafras.

Whether we enter or stay doesn't matter:

doomsayers will continue their chant

about final things.

Water continues to run