The poems in Craig Morgan Teicher's The Trembling Answers (a title I like to whisper to myself) are self-absorbed and tender. An unraffish and irritating poet, Teicher's necessary subject is how the self finds its particular shape within autobiographical data:
We’ve been lucky—March is over
and my son is still alive. My daughter
is about to crawl. And the golden
sunset light recalls
distant childhood light.
I feed my son while he sleeps
through a hole in his tummy
when the night nurse
has the night off,
and when I go to the mirror
it’s to see if the ocean-eyed man
the teenager I was had hoped to become
is anywhere in there.
This is from the poem called "Self-Portrait Beside Myself" and like a lot of dads, Teicher is wondering what the heck happened: one minute life is full of possibility and the next you got a feeding tube in your hand. Before you know it, you're just some guy in a bedroom practicing mindfulness and conversing with your teenage self:
Standing over my son
at night, I feel quiet, only then,
no need to be me or anyone,
just listening to him breathe.
I can divide all life
into breath and waiting
for the next breath, and
the calm in the troughs
between. I wanted
to show you I could see the world
without me in the way; I can’t, not
even for a little while. I’m beside
that man watching over his son,
impressed with him and his humility.
But if that’s what it takes,
to keep my son safe—admiring
my better self rather than
being him—ok. That’s ok.
A reader will wish the poet was more savagely divided against himself, which in part is a wish for a harsher music: throughout The Trembling Answers, Teicher's syntax is so wedded to long vowel lengths and soft consonants that a tone of perpetual gentleness triumphs. After nearly eighty pages of being groomed by his light touch, a reader feels a bit violated, and since the poems are airbrushed onto the page, it weakens our faith in what he writes about actually matters. For a poet living a life he didn't bargain for, he rarely seems too upset about it. The Trembling Answers might have been titled Everything is Okay, Nothing is Okay, & That's Okay.
Family life (and raising a child with special needs) has given Teicher a kind of breezy emotional intelligence whose greatest ambition is to be poignant. He's the kind of writer who uses one as a pronoun and says things like "I shall", "in fact", "quite clearly", "hence", and "surely." He'll even begin sentences that aren't questions with the word how and the verb eddies brings him a particular joy. Because Teicher presents on the page as unfailingly thoughtful, a reader never worries that his spirit's in peril. He says in one poem that "I don't know//how not to write darkly and sad" and you can't help but shake your head: did he really say not? That tiny word is easy to skim right over (which in part is the point) but it still claims what it claims. Unlike his "hero" Robert Lowell, whose malice reflected genuine crisis, Teicher's verse is as frightening as an Adirondack chair and his lines are inhabited by a voice both resolved and needy, a repellent combination that calcifies in the last line of the poem "Nest":
Simone is babbling to her nighttime friend,
a small pink fabric square,
while Cal gracefully
waves himself to sleep, smoothing his hands
across the bed, the air, his chest
like someone learning
to make spiderweb.
Slow is the quality of his motion, deliberate
as his brain instructs
his unheeding body.
How can one
heed? And Simone, under the sign
of perfection, lurches and jerks
towards whatever beckons her attention:
movement in impassioned fits, irregular
as heartthrobs, unlike Cal, the thread
of him continuously
verb with no word. You love your children
as much as anything
you were unprepared for:
fiercely, with fear,
with all the fucking hatred it takes.
Despite the unpleasant gesture of the last line (it begs the reader to reread the poem), "Nest" is one of the best poems here because it makes us reconsider the poet's unlikable voice. What at first seems like a father meditating on his children with sentimental attention is really a father mastering his own resentment. It's the only time, really, that Teicher is menacing. He seems to be mocking his children: their wordless existence (particularly in the bitter metrics of "a small pink fabric square"), the half-possessed and incoherent bodies, and what readers come to realize, with a bit of delight, is that the "spiderweb" the son is learning to spin (an image that issues forth from the poet's own unconscious) is most likely being made to ensnare the father.
Teicher thinks he has a brusque side, apparently (once in a while he'll drop an awkward f-bomb, refer to the act of fucking and even talk about masturbation), but these gestures rarely ring true. He has the ability of making the demotic sound unnatural. But in "Night Nurse," an honesty emerges that's compelling:
Lately we invite this stranger into our home
to watch over, like an angel or good dog,
But she is not angelic, not graceful, her slippers
flopping like sad clown shoes. And it’s wrong
to compare this nurse to a dog, especially
that kind of dog: trusted, beloved. We need her
so we hate her, even though it is—must be—our fault
—he is our son—
so we give
instructions and thanks before quarantining
in our room
This is almost an excellent poem. "Lately" sweeps the reader right into the scene and referring to the stranger as "this" rather than "a" strikes just the right note and sets up "this nurse" which foreshadows not only the striking "hate" the speaker and his wife feel, but illuminates the complications of the obligatory "thanks" that comes later. The problem with the poem is that Teicher continues writing it:
she is paid
to guard our son against
that more familiar stranger, who should have
no business with a child,
not now, not here. But endings
are always near. Passing our door, her steps
sound too like the anxious foot-tapping, strangers
impatient to leave with
what they’ve come to collect.
The poet does this a lot: keeps going when he should have stopped or adds stanzas where none are needed (for example, the first poem "Every Turning" is a fine poem but would flourish without stanzas 10 and 11). But he can't help it and frankly it's the least of his problems, because every time Teicher pulls a "But endings/are always near" or "her steps/sound too like the..." you want to electrocute him in the hopes it'll make him stop being so precious. And yet this poet has technical skills to spare. The poem "Tracheotomy" should be read just for the third stanza alone. His lines and sentences are carefully planned and his fidelity to commas is admirable, although a reader can only take so much melodrama, which Teicher bolsters with a glut of pauses, like in "Video Baby Monitor":
We can’t give up watching
Cal through the night, through
the glassy fog of a little
screen, X-ray vision
piercing the skin of the dark.
He is seven, ever unsafe,
no baby, my baby, my son.
Already, the camera on
Simone broke, she’s three,
and we won’t replace it.
But Cal is different, his health
as tricky as wisdom, possessed
only by not knowing.
The monitor lies. I have been
here before, wrote this
before, am here now in these
very words. A watched
pot never boils, so perhaps
a son on a screen never
dies. Like the eyes
of a painting this image
follows wherever we move.
Surveillance is love, love
is every moment the last.
Barely moving picture, memory
of now, sleep, be still, be
safe. Night is long, life short.
I cover you with my eyes.
Most readers will find Teicher's sincerity ridiculous. If you don't cringe at phrases like "tricky as wisdom" or "love/is every moment the last" then you probably use the Fade effect on Instagram a lot. Although it seems only right, only human, to support this poet's efforts, his work activates within us a hostility that's hard to ignore. It's not surprising that we eventually find a poem about bullying where the poet wonders why the "other boys" shunned him. At first, Teicher thinks it was "for an accurate, intuitive/reason" but later concludes that "In fact,//I now think, they knew/better and hoped//that by attacking/and shaming the fear resident in me,//in my self, they might/drive away the dark/within theirs." He gives those boys way too much credit. Sadly, his first impulse was the correct one. It's hard to convey, but Teicher - well, to be fair, his poetry - has a specific quality that you want to purge from the human ecosystem. He even confesses later in the same poem that his "monstrousness is rotting harmlessly now/in my poetry." I imagine he often senses danger in his environments because about halfway through The Trembling Answers you realize how indifferent he is to the public sphere. Aside from family and a few poets, his poems are mostly unpopulated and geographies of culture are almost non-existent. If the outside world appears at all, as it does in "In the Waiting Room" (yes, that waiting room), he experiences it alone and -second or third-hand and it's depicted as a list of narrow banalities. When the big moment arrives to discover not only his I-ness, but also his connection to the broader human community (just like the precocious speaker does in Bishop's poem), he can only locate himself in the dead poet herself:
But now, here, however,
you are skimming an article
about the viral video that sank New York,
then a profile of the man
who played the real-life Michael Jackson.
An article on who really profits
most from chilly wind. On the truth about
close friendship. On ten safe things
to open your mind to. You are an
Elizabeth! You are one of them!
Soon someone will call you in.
That last line here is worth noting because there's an earlier poem ("Free") that ends on "I'm outside and/nothing will ever make me go in!" The in/out paradigm is strong in Teicher's work. He often toggles back and forth between the two ("The rain will be brief, I can tell//but I will be driven inside within earshot"; "this is reality. It feels like/looking from within/a helmet, the air outside/unbreathable") as he struggles with the transition from who he was to who he's become.
Many of the poems in The Trembling Answers summon childhood to examine how it informs the here and now, especially in "Edgemont", where the poet wrestles with the facticity of his past in 55 tedious quatrains. Unless you're Craig Morgan Teicher, it will bore you, but it reveals the poet's hyper-sensitivity to simply being which vitalizes this entire book. In "The Hairdryer Cord Is All Tangled", the poet asks, "Does no one feel/the tectonic plates, magma, glaciers sliding" and talking to himself he answers, "You do, who've been anticipating death/since you were four." Teicher's the kind of poet that's not only amazed that he's happening, but that one day he'll stop happening. He has a nice line of thought that goes "Death/is shorthand//for Death" and throughout The Trembling Answers mortality is always near.
Teicher can be funny, too, and and it's a quality he underutilizes or veils too successfully. When he asks in "Tomorrow and Tomorrow Again" (a poem made up of urgent existential questions about the afterlife) "Is fear/of spiders fair?" you sense the kinship between comedy and philosophy. In the poem "Book Review: The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford" (hat tip to Teicher for inspiring me to read this novel) when he writes "No one reads Stafford—I asked/on Facebook" I laughed out loud because leading up to that joke was such sentimental rubbish that you never see the sarcasm coming.
Near the end of The Trembling Answers the poet writes "There is nothing//to frighten me but death and debt./And yet, that other, better terror/still rings—I hear it—between/and beneath these words./Why else am I writing them?" Only a poet with a soul (or who reads Lacan) would think such a thing. Compared to his last book of poems (To Keep Love Blurry) - which was a grotesquerie of saccharinity - The Trembling Answers feels restrained. But for all his talk of gentleness ("I look everywhere for/kindness, a gentle, generous/reception for myself", "A small breeze born in the heart//gently bends a blade of grass", "May our years pass gently", "the breeze/caresses like gentle fingertips"), there's a violence in Teicher and his insistence on being soft is precisely how he shows it.