Patricia Lockwood – Priestdaddy (Penguin, 2018)
I must begin this review with an admission of bias. I believe in the gospel of Lockwood. I have accepted her as my personal Lord and rhymester.
Reading her first collection, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black (2012), was what first allowed me to write proper poems, and to judge what good modern poetry was. Before then, my literature degree had me peering up a high mountain with Milton waving down from the top. Those poems span me around and showed me how the rest of the world is poetry too.
Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (2014) was when Lockwood really arrived. It was the breakthrough album, complete with a hit single, “Rape Joke”, which went viral in the summer of 2017. I became a minor Patricia Lockwood lending library that summer, trying to gain converts by butting into every conversation and waving pamphlets.
Thanks to amazon-related bungling I missed the opportunity to review Lockwood’s 2017 memoir, Priestdaddy, before its release. Now that a new paperback edition has just been released by Penguin I finally have my chance to pass off a glowing review as objective reportage. (Perhaps I’ve already blown my cover…)
Priestdaddy is a memoir dealing with Lockwood’s eccentric family, her love of language, and her relationship with the Catholic Church. Her father, she tells us, watched The Exorcist one too many times while on a submarine patrol in the Navy, fell down some stairs and saw God. First becoming a Lutheran minister, he would marry and have five children before converting to Catholicism. For those curious, that’s how you end up having a Father for a father.
The way Lockwood describes her father is in keeping with her poetic style. She exaggerates for comic effect, emphasising his guitar noodling and penchant for clotheslessness to a cartoonish extent, only for her then to surprise the reader with touching moments of parental care and his dedication to the priesthood. Waking at 3am to help people in trouble, supporting his family through their various trials, having the Last Rights Kit hanging by the door, always ready; you get the sense of her father being a good man, albeit one who is an enemy to trousers.
The supporting cast overall is strong. You grow to love her paranoiac mother with pro-life coathangers in her dresser (“The Midwest, contrary to popular opinion, does not lack a sense of irony. It might have too much of one”). Jason, her husband, plays the role of baffled outsider well, although there’s not a huge amount of their story in the book. Lockwood is much happier telling the story of how she lost her virginity to a swimming pool than she is in dealing with her own romances. One could be forgiven for thinking she only married him because he wrote the line “the milk bottles burst like scared chickens” in a poem once. Though it is a good line.
The memoirs travel loosely between the present of their writing and memories. It feels digressive in a personal way, like a long conversation between friends. If there is arrangement, it is through symbol. Swimming, submarines, cheap wine, asses; a shifting, personal iconography develops to parallel that of the immovable Church.
Which brings us to language. Lockwood’s poetry depends on the capacity of simile to outstretch metaphor. The terrifying beast that Christine Brooke-Rose always capitalised, “The Copula”, should technically only compare and not replace. A metaphor says something is something else, while Lockwood usually only says that it is like. Her genius is in the excesses to which she can then take her imagery thanks to them only being likenesses.
Describing the moment of religious calling when a man knows he is destined for the Church, Lockwood writes, “I think of that Buster Keaton stunt where the wall collapses and he finds himself standing in the open window of the upper room, not merely unharmed but chosen. After that, you must live the rest of your life differently, carrying that open window around with you always”. I find that image captivating. The thing that being chosen is like seems so much more real than the thing itself; not just more apt, or easier to understand, but more palpable.
Maybe these images are lapsed-Catholic in origin? Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism showed itself in his emphatic symbols; big, heavy red rocks and hollow men that are hollow men. He declares his images. Booms them with Gospel certainty. Lockwood, by contrast, has let The Copula into her heart. The wine isn’t blood, but if you want to really understand it, then it is. Poetry is the magical process by which things are compared with other things with such passionate intensity that, for the reader, they actually transform.
The most exciting moment of the book for me came with Lockwood’s description of linguistic synaesthesia, the “plasma” spilling out of words. We are told that “’sunshine’ had a washed look, with the sweep of a rag in the middle of it. The world ‘violinist’ was a fig cut in half. ‘String quartet’ was a cat’s cradle held between two hands”. I don’t really understand this bit, but that’s only because “sunshine” is so obviously a low buzz, “violinist” the sound of a knife and “string quartet” is like a bag full of nuts and bolts shaking around. Or I guess I do understand it. Too well.
More than anything, Priestdaddy is a touching read. It is a hymn to American kookiness and a rejoinder to Tolstoy’s claim that all families have to be happy in the same way. I hope that it does well, but not so well that Lockwood gives up poetry for prose. She is a unique voice.
– Joe Darlington