Prodigal Queering: When Fathers are Lovers
Frank O’Hara begins one of his many poems titled “Song” thusly:
Is it dirty
Does it look dirty
That’s what you think of in the city
The speakers in Ed Madden’s Prodigal: Variations would likely reply: Yes, Yes, and not just in the city, but in the country as well.
That’s because Madden’s debut collection is, in many ways, a filthy book. It’s not replete with curses and smut; it’s dirty in the sense that the poems seem to be infused with grime, with dirt, with a raw, meaty sullenness that leaves the reader dripping and stained.
Madden’s poems occupy a hermetic space wherever they exist, be that the farmland of his boyhood, or the less defined, vaguely urban arenas of his dark dreams. Viscera, shit, and sex abound in this collection but never tip over into the sensational-for-the-sake-of-being-sensational; quite the contrary, the poems are kept grounded by the speakers’ emotional and perceptual clarity. To be clear, though, no dirt is sacrificed for it.
Madden’s poems are not merely dirty on the level of what they contain—they are also frequently dirty in their muddled relationships, especially between the speaker and what appears to be his father (or a father-like figure.) This complicated relationship, which is also tinged with lust, is the primary source of tension in the collection. The first poem of the book, titled “Sacrifice,” begins with the telling line: “When my father bound me, I submitted […].”
In “Dream Fathers,” the line between father and lover intensifies as it blurs:
A snakebite scars his hand, exactly where
a cottonmouth bit my father as a child.
He almost died. The man slices open
his left breast, the hinge of skin peeled
back to expose the heart. He lifts it out,
he kisses it as if he were the one who broke it—
blood on his lips, blood and cum on mine.
This poem reminded me a lot of Frank Bidart’s poem, “Love Incarnate,” when I first read it. The body this speaker encounters in the dream shares the same snakebite—the same wound, a mark of certainty—as his father. The body of the lover, the father-zombie, functions as a symbol of the connection between sex, life, and death, a connection that seems born out of the speaker’s guilt that his homosexuality causes harm—spiritual, psychological, physical—to his lover and his father. The blood and cum, both vital fluids, mark the speaker and the father/lover’s bodies, emphasizing the way in which the connection between them (all of them!) manifests as pain and pleasure, a continuum not uncommon to the way same-sex desire often functions in the work of other gay poets.