Rory Waterman reveals the story behind his poem ‘Like Father’
Shortly after the Autumn 2019 Poetry Review appeared, the poet Katy Evans-Bush wrote on Facebook: “Rory Waterman’s poem in Poetry Review. Consider this a standing ovation”. This was lovely, but the poem makes me nervous, so it also gave me an anxious jolt. I’m fairly private, and the poem is not; what if someone asks me about it? Another person then speculated about the poem, at which point I said I’d rather offer no comment. “No, let the poem stand”, wrote Katy. Yes, and thank you.
Then, a few days later, Poetry Review asked me for a piece on the poem, and I decided to do it – though that eventually fell through for a few reasons beyond my, or their, control. Still, it seemed I did want to offer commentary after all, and now that poem has appeared in my new collection, Sweet Nothings, it seems right to resurrect that commentary. Yes, poems should stand on their own; but that doesn’t mean I should hide behind one when invited not to – especially one that is so obviously autobiographical.
I hope what follows doesn’t sound too prim. Any lack of detail is an attempt to ensure the poem does indeed stand, without this inadvertently seeming like an attempt to provide a full and necessary counterpart.
I was born in Belfast, and my dad taught at the University of Ulster. My mum – his fourth wife – left him when I was two, moving us to her mother’s house in Lincolnshire: a tiny cottage a mile from the nearest village. This was, I am sure, devastating for him. The comment in the poem about my grandmother’s teeth refers to an incident a little later, when my father broke into that house through a window, leaving a rental car full of nappies down the lane, and was arrested. I’d seen this unfold, of course, and my earliest memory is of believing I had a ‘good daddy’ and a ‘bad daddy’, two entirely separate people; my mum convinced me I’d never have to see ‘bad daddy’ again, but I did, eventually.
We had trees and Victorian metal fences and a mystically dark water-butt and an untidy garden full of herbs and vegetables, and not quite enough money. Nan slept on a fold-out chair in the living room, right until her final trip to hospital. That is the kind of woman she was, but she died when I was 15 and I never did much to repay her, which has grown into one of my biggest regrets.
My earliest memory is of believing I had a ‘good daddy’ and a ‘bad daddy’, two entirely separate people
My childhood was punctuated by custody and access hearings (about which my father kept me rather too well informed in ways that suited him, and my mother said nothing), monthly weekends with my dad in English guest houses (I’d been made a ward of court and couldn’t leave England and Wales until I was 10) then also longer stays in Ireland, and simmering resentment at the adult world of those whom I had repeatedly been told had abducted me from my rightful Irish home. I hated (and loved) those loveable women. It was, I firmly believed, all their fault I wasn’t ‘normal’ – a concept I had been conditioned to hold dear, not understanding it doesn’t really exist. “There’s nobody nice for me here”, I’d scream at my mother as a five- or six-year-old when the social worker dropped me off from another access visit. “You’re not nice and Nanny’s not nice. I hate you. I want to be with Daddy in Ireland.” And then I’d burst into tears and run for a big cuddle and she’d read me Beatrix Potter.
My dad was my immaculate, otherworldly hero until, between about the ages of 10 and 15, I started to work out, and learn first-hand, that the truth was more complicated. Having my own mind did not always go down well with him, and I was an assiduous cross-examiner because the things he said rarely matched up very well with the things I was beginning to see or think for myself. We learn to improve our behaviour, in part, by recognising when and how we have messed things up and wanting to fix it, and people who never recognise their worst mistakes or tendencies for what they are lack the capacity to do better in future. The bad things simply never happened, and you are wrong. You can’t just shut up, either: you must agree you are wrong. The new truth must be observed. Reality is a construct.
By then, I had seen many things no child should see, one way or another, and had felt or witnessed an almost infinite array of manipulations. But I loved my dad, and I knew he loved me. We did nice things together. He taught me so much. And he was convincing, too – almost impossible not to believe. I’d also falteringly come to the realisation that we had many of the same interests. In some ways, at least, I really was a hell of a lot like him, I thought – just not as good at anything. We always had something to talk about, to laugh about.
I had feelings to explore, and not just those concerning my raging teenage hormones. Writing poems might help me to understand them. I liked the quiet and graft, the solipsism of the act, and the way things I hadn’t known I’d thought would emerge, however awkwardly expressed, in the extremely private notebook in front of me
And then, as I stumbled through two sets of A levels (flunking the first ones) and tried to be the frontman in what I thought was a punk band, I wrote several mawkish, immature poems, some of them about my complicated relationship with my father. I had feelings to explore, and not just those concerning my raging teenage hormones. Writing poems might help me to understand them. I liked the quiet and graft, the solipsism of the act, and the way things I hadn’t known I’d thought would emerge, however awkwardly expressed, in the extremely private notebook in front of me. I knew the poems wouldn’t be much cop, but I didn’t have an audience in mind so that didn’t matter.
By the time I came to write the first poems that would make it into my first book Tonight the Summer’s Over, a decade or so later, I was in some ways a different human, who felt more valid and stable. I’d long since moved past those early ‘poems’. I could barely remember them, and certainly didn’t care to. However, I did write some new ones about my upbringing, about five of which made it into the collection.
Having then felt I’d moved past all of that, I didn’t touch upon the subject again for a decade: my second book Sarajevo Roses is mute on it. At one reading for that collection, a well-meaning older woman in the audience proclaimed: “You say you don’t write poems about your childhood any more. But they’re the ones I like“. Fair enough, I thought, but ‘Woe is me’ is a terrible look for a poet, and Daddy issues do not a poem make. I’m now a balding man in his late thirties! And there’s nothing new I can say about it. I suggested she not bother with my second book, and I think she took the advice.
I don’t want to repeat myself in book after book. Some poets do just that, which is why much of the modishly insular poetry of our times is bound to blow itself out on a principle of diminishing returns. But there are things I didn’t say in those earlier poems, not for ‘artistic reasons’ but because I had a relationship to maintain with my father. That relationship finally broke down, and has since been carted off: he has developed alcoholic dementia and been confined to a nursing home. I visit as often as I am permitted, we talk about airbrushed versions of my childhood and his and not at all about anything since then apart from football, and periodically he shouts impotently: “There is nothing wrong with me. You should take me home immediately you useless cunt. You CUNT.” Silence. “What are we talking about?” Silence. “You’re a good lad, son.”
‘Woe is me’ is a terrible look for a poet, and Daddy issues do not a poem make. I’m now a balding man in his late thirties!
The poem slightly predates my father’s ‘hideous inverted childhood’, my reconciliation with a man who doesn’t remember there is anything to be reconciled and would’ve pretended there wasn’t if he did. About two years ago, a friend and poet I trust commented that there must be more I want to write about my childhood, and that it’s a shame I haven’t tried. This was a small thing to say, but it had a big impact. Perhaps the time is right, and I have another poem about this in me, I thought. On my next visit to my mother’s house in Lincolnshire, I went digging in drawers, found my heartfelt teenage gibberish, cracked new joints in my toes while reading through it, and decided to make a palimpsest – to have a conversation with myself then and myself now. That became ‘Like Father’.
I hoped it would connect with others – and had it not, it wouldn’t really have been a poem at all. My formative experiences were less difficult than many people’s. I’m not exceptional. But that probably has something to do with why the piece seems to work for some readers.
started 2000, finished 2019
My daddy was Irish and famous – “Well, sort of Irish
and sort of famous,” he said – and told the truth.
He loved and he was loved, and was a joker,
and in his youth
he’d passed the eleven-plus with such high marks
they’d sent him to private school (plush lawns, straw hats)
but then he’d felt “oppressed by the Oxbridge conveyor”
so that was that
for years, while he wrote in garrets and took “real jobs”:
porter on Jersey, bank clerk. He explored
the world, and then read English up at Leicester,
then at Oxford,
and won awards, and “found” he was getting in print,
but still worked summers at Leicester station goods-yard.
“Am I as bright as you, Daddy?” “Probably not.”
So it was hard
not to pine for all he represented
on access visits, and not to be beguiled,
but I knew I wasn’t as special, that I was
an anxious child
who liked to play with marbles on his own,
while Mum cooked, watched EastEnders, tidied up.
Who teachers said should “come out of his shell”.
Who had a pup
and made her his best friend, and got in trouble
for daydreaming, and caused too much of a fuss
about his distant dad. Who scrapped. Who failed
and went to a comprehensive where he learned
never to try too hard. Who knew his place
was in the middle. Who watched his lurch-drunk father
jab at the face
of a steadfast woman patently too good
to stay with him. (She didn’t.) Who wouldn’t become
a poet and scholar too, or much at all:
he was too dumb.
Who later found the custody-hearing documents
while helping his mother clear her musty attic:
the affidavits of all his dad’s ex-lovers,
that I’m sure the child’s interests are best served
by being kept from this abusive man,
a drunk who bullied and hit me; his arrest statement
from when my nan
lost her front teeth (I hadn’t been told the reason).
Until then, I’d seen one short, partial report
to which my father had clung. Mum had buried
and Nan was now in her functional little urn.
And I was trying to be like him – a bit,
in fewer and fewer ways – and started a poem
and this is it.
Buy Sweet Nothings by Rory Waterman from Carcanet here