Reconciliation, Heartbreak, Symphonic Moments: Kevin Rabas’s Songs for my Father
Rabas, Kevin. Songs for my Father. (Meadowlark Books, 2016. 174 pages, paperback: $12.00.)
In Songs for my Father, Kevin Rabas’s latest collection of poems and stories, the Emporia, Kansas poet and professor confronts dark facets of his family and life to date with a bravery that appears to be genetic. This newest collection is a deep exploration of three disparate but interwoven relationships, and the stakes inherent in them. These relationships, for Rabas, are father and son, musician and song, and the poet’s relationship with himself (hinging on integrity, self-respect, and the need for personal betterment—especially in the wake of a life-altering head injury). In Rabas’s just-previous chapbook, Eliot’s Violin, he discusses the first of these relationships, lauding the bold ventures of his son and holding up a literary mirror. When Eliot discovers the beauty of music and the cruelty of bullies, Rabas paints portraits of both his son and his own similar moments of discovery, years prior to his son’s.
Here, that dynamic is reversed deftly—now Rabas stewards the perspective of the son, seeing Gary Curtis Rabas as both a loving father and as a thoroughly complicated man. The poet views his father, alternately a mechanic, woodworker, teacher, and construction site worker, as an admirable and hardworking man—certainly as a figure to emulate, and one with whom Rabas shares a mutual respect and affection. The father’s steel resolve shows itself through both his wise and his perhaps foolish moments. In “Knife with a Lion’s Head on the Hilt,” Rabas’s “[f]ather holds a broken knife, tells me / he’s swapped an old stage coach gun / to fix it.” This wise sense for thrift and opportunity avails the poet as well. Yet, in “Buffaloed,” Rabas recalls how that resolve can easily take a turn for the worse:
My father takes the dare,
tees up and aims for the bull
down-course, at college, in Golf 101,
and hits it, the tail raised, the chest
puffed, the legs pistons. My father flunks.
Though a fairly benign situation, that charging buffalo serves as an apt metaphor for how life often confronts Rabas’s father. Gary Rabas takes charge of tough moments with hallmark tenacity whenever possible—“My Old Man” shows a succinct reaction to agitators. “‘This is the third time they’ve set fire / to my trashcans,’ my old man says, his first year / teaching in the inner city school. ‘I’m done.’” When prompted to put his resignation in writing, he brandishes a napkin with two words and his initials: “‘I quit. –GCR.’”
Yet at times tenacity alone seems not enough for either the elder or the younger Rabas—they must keep themselves afloat by the blue fire of optimism, knowing things will right themselves somehow. “Night I bent our credit cards” shows that collateral heartbreak is always possible, interweaving the father/son dynamic with Rabas’s personal life:
Julie goes out dancing
with her ring off. Morning,
and I find car tracks across
my father’s yard, the garden
knocked down, and a vodka bottle
in the poppies, all gone.
Rabas informs us of his father’s more tender side—how this affront to his flowers is “[t]o my father, like a horse head / left in his bed.” Rabas himself embodies these two intertwined extremes—roughness and tenderness—in his pursuit of music, which he links to family life and to life with his band mates. He sees his own future—perhaps like his father’s life—and an looming foreboding when “Annie . . . moves our drunk world, and I can see the future in / those wine stains . . . turned sophisticate by a night of strained wine.”
Even so, Rabas shows confidence in himself and his decisions while playing his music, as in “That Last Page,” where he shows that he can adapt to situations beyond his control: “Two months I practiced / that high school timpani piece, / never once looked up.” When Rabas discovers that the piece is longer than he planned for, he drums his way to success anyway: “a blender of beat and note, / and, in luck, I got a ‘one.’” This determination serves both Rabas and his father well throughout the collection—in “The Next Generation,” the poet reaffirms his own proficiency and that of his musical peers, showing a force of will to help others as well as himself. Rabas tells a bandmate to “Keep at it! / Poems run in your family. What the river says, / you, too, can say. Let the words stream through you— / catch them, take them, when they come.” This gentler determination aids Rabas in his life, his music, his writing, and his teaching. Those nerves harden in “Basketball Fall,” a poem that chronicles a head injury sustained during a pick-up game. Against the odds, the poet stays solidly on the court: “When I fell, / I jumped back up, blood / in my brain, and played out the game.” Rabas is well aware, even then, that the long game had been changed: “Coaches say, ‘Leave it all / on the court,’ and I left my easy smile, / each laughing net, that pink crinkle / around my lips, that breezy walk.”
This collection’s latter half is dedicated to Rabas’s short fiction. The life lessons imbued by the first half’s poems hold true here as well: learning to grapple with doubt, rejoicing in successes. In “Conferencing in Hawaii,” Calvin (Rabas’s alter ego) and friend Zenji deal with respective difficulties. We learn that from hard moments can arrive opportunities: “Zenji’s girlfriend, Haru, broke up with him the day before the trip. So, Calvin had a free room in Hawaii.” As Zenji contemplates Haru’s decision, Calvin’s professional interests generate a mixed response: “Calvin told about his interviews with jazz and blues musicians, what they found in Langston Hughes’s sessions . . . And it ended almost as quickly as it began, with mild applause, a room almost empty, formal regard, a quick question or two, the golf clap of academia, and Calvin wanted to hug someone or to fall into someone’s arms.” In this story, each character grapples with their own internal (occasionally external) struggles, and prevails eventually in their own narrow way.
In other short pieces difficulty becomes opportunity in its own refracted way. “Dead Battery,” an eight-line flash fiction piece, begins: “I called my ex-girlfriend when my Blazer battery died in the Tuna Shop parking lot”—surely an inauspicious opening for any situation in need of resolution. At the piece’s closing, however, Rabas’s narrator feels “Bea’s hand in my hand again,” suggesting opportunity for reconciliation. Throughout this stellar new collection, Rabas holds firm to that tacit belief in recovery—that the world will work itself to a better position. In “Pool with Dad,” one of this volume’s final pieces Rabas realizes a form of true happiness: “I felt as though my father had just patted me on the back. We played out the game, my father a live wire, once more.”
Readers can purchase Songs for my Father at one of Rabas’s many readings or from Meadowlark Books, as well as from amazon.com and at national and regional bookstores.
Author’s Note: this review was first published in Coal City Review, issue 38.