Nancy White: “Your Father, Your Son”

Nancy White directs the prestigious Word Works Washington Prize poetry book series, a contest that she won for her first book, Sun, Moon, Salt, in the early 1990s. She also taught English at my high school, St. Ann’s School, so I have a special affection for her. However, even if we were strangers, I would still have fallen in love with her newest collection, Detour (Tamarack Editions, 2010).

Detour explores the breaking apart and remaking of a woman’s identity in the middle of her life, through a son’s birth and a painful divorce. Subject matter that in a lesser poet’s hands would be merely confessional here takes on a haiku-like precision and open-endedness, intimate yet unbounded by the confines of one person’s experience. This feat is accomplished through White’s use of the second-person voice and the way she narrates major events obliquely, through peripheral details described with quiet beauty.

As a feminist and now the mother of a baby boy, I was particularly moved by the poem she’s permitted me to reprint below. I was concurrently reading the chapter on mothers and sons in Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, which addresses the same theme of trying to teach our children a more wholesome and emotionally well-rounded way of being men despite the pressures of patriarchy.


He carved the dusk with stories—his trick
to dive with lit cigarette and come up smoking,
or the girl he danced with late, her brothers
interrupting with a gun—but he never much

listened to you, no matter how you guzzled
his gruff heat, the musk of his overalls, the fine foul
language of his big male freedom. Four daughters,
no sons. He was all you had, so he’s still the man

to turn to, saying You took the dog in the boat not us.
You stayed late with the neighbors, called us liars,
didn’t care if we walked in the road.
In you now
a bud, a son who will rise like weather,

poured from your genuine, unnamed ore, from his
genuine, unnamed ore. You say this one
won’t taste the blade that separates love
from its genderless shape. You swear it.

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