at the south end of the pond endlessly
remade, a stream that falls away into the hollow,
persisting in its course before losing itself
in yet another stream.
Though we may "move toward absence," as Davis writes, these poems somehow preserve the presence of a father, and the fragile but essential continuity of a family.
John T. Price's new memoir, "Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father," is a nice complement to Davis' poetry. With his Midwestern humility and humor, Price also explores the joys and trials of fatherhood. And like Davis, he also is a nature writer who is deeply rooted on home ground, which in this case is Iowa, "the most ecologically decimated state in the union." Once certain he would flee the state when he finished college, he and his wife instead grew to love it and to raise a family there. They have three young boys, who figure prominently in the book.
Like many people, Price is overwhelmed with work, a shortage of money and the responsibilities that come with being a parent and a spouse. But after he suffers a heart attack scare, his wife encourages him to rethink his priorities, to let go of his drivenness and cynicism, and to live with more gratitude — for his marriage, his family and his friends. This is easier said than done, yet the reason the book is so engaging is that Price, like the rest of us, never quite gets it right. He's honest and funny. Here is a typical chapter opening: "There comes a time in a man's life when he doesn't want to open the door to his car and find a pile of mouse turds in the driver's seat."
Price later finds out that his wife and sons had live-trapped two mice in the house, and while they were taking them elsewhere in the car, the mice had escaped. But Price's family forgot to tell dad that two mice now were living in his car.
Such stories are common, as this is an animal- and insect-loving family. The boys have a pet brown recluse spider (i.e., very poisonous) and have declared their house and yard a "No Kill Zone," meaning no insects or animals may be killed. This "law" gives rise to all kinds of humorous moral dilemmas.
Against these stories of his immediate family Price also explores the larger context of his own childhood and familial roots in Iowa. His parents still live in his hometown, Fort Dodge, and he often brings his sons to visit.
It is there, at book's end, when Price's grandmother dies, that childhood and parenthood converge. In that moment of death and loss, the same "move toward absence" that Davis describes, Price brilliantly depicts the gift of letting go, of continuity, by revealing the resilient presence of his own family/childhood. He watches his sons sitting around the same huge maple tree where he sat as a boy and remembers a time when he "had yet to appreciate the gap between aspiration and reality" and "had not yet relinquished courage and hope." This memory is a great comfort. It seems to both sustain him — to hold him up — and to push him forward into the future perils of fatherhood.
Tom Montgomery Fate is a professor of English at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. He is the author of "Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father's Search for the Wild."
Daddy Long Legs
By John T. Price, Trumpeter Books, 224 pages, $14.95 paperback
In the Kingdom of the Ditch
By Todd Davis, Michigan State University Press, 112 pages, $19.95 paperback