Well-written poetry drops into the mind like a smooth pebble. Each word can be savored, explored for multiple meanings, tasted and turned over. But there’s very little candy coating waiting to be dissolved. Very quickly, readers are compelled to return to the rock-hard certainty of that single word placed with great deliberation on a mostly vacant page. It’s feelings, bared to the bone, unmistakable, especially for those with shared experiences.
Actor, songwriter, poet Michael O’Keefe learned early on what power there is in sharing emotions. Nominated for an Emmy for his role as teenaged Ben Meechum in The Great Santini, he played the role of a child of an alcoholic with unusual intensity. Perhaps that was because he lived it before he acted it. In a collection of poetry titled Swimming From Under My Father, he takes us with spellbinding simplicity through the process of growing up that is often part of a recovery journey.
The first section is titled “Entering.” Like the first tentative sticking-in-of-toes, O’Keefe comments on the pain that brings all of us to desire recovery, hinting at the seductive and addictive qualities of those remedies we concoct to relieve our own pain. In “Onstage With The Leading Lady” O’Keefe observes “the theater is a drug that relieves the reality we suffer”. The price of that solace is the expectations of the audience and the risk of not meeting those needs as they are “waiting in the dark for a ritual to identify themselves”.
Anyone who tried growing up with the disease known as “cunning, baffling and powerful” will recognize the childhood deficits O’Keefe catalogs: trust, laughter, safety, predictability.
The section ends with a dawning sense of poignance in “His Thumb Hooked Me”. An old Romanian rabbi hitches a ride and O’Keefe finds small gifts in the absurdity of a chance encounter. “What do you do?” the old man asks. “I’m trying to forget,” is O’Keefe’s reply. Then a few more blocks down the road the poet seems to reach for something deeper: “my prayer is to forget,” he says, to forget “myself.” As if in answer to his prayer, by poem’s end, he seems to have forgotten the significance of the old rabbi altogether.
In the second section, entitled “Swimming,” we are submerged into deeper water: O’Keefe’s childhood, when “Things you had to do to survive back then:/Lie, hide, never cry,/and be STILL.”
The tension finds some relief in O’Keefe’s wry humor referring to his Roman-Catholic upbringing, the rapid family growth, and the unspoken effects of alcoholism: “Pop had a quaint two-quart a day drinking habit that/reeked from the basement on Alden Rd./to the community of Saints/Mom put her faith in daily.”
Anyone who tried growing up with the disease known as “cunning, baffling and powerful” will recognize the childhood deficits O’Keefe catalogs: trust, laughter, safety, predictability. As a grown man, now, he’s worked his way free of those losses, to some extent. But then the cruelest irony: the tormenter, the strong one, becomes weak, needy, confused. “My father’s tide is going out./Seeing his cognitive abilities/ in a puddle on the rocking chair porch/ I am kicked in the head by time.”
O’Keefe documents his own way out, a rescue in a sense, in the title poem, “Swimming From Under My Father.” It’s ambiguous, the road to the water hazy, the transition from car to water’s edge an awkward one, but there is redemption there, and grace.
Applying that grace to his relationships and the center of his life is the topic of the third section of poetry, titled “Emerging.” Mostly short, gently self-mocking and fully self-aware, the poet’s emergence into the grown-up world involves, among other things, “Confession,” “What We Have In Common,” “Love,” “Forgiveness,” “Lunch With My Brother” and “Five Ways of Looking At It.”
Finally, he acknowledges that we each struggle to do the best we can: “We abide here/ and nowhere touching nothing./ Especially not one and other./ This arm’s length between us/ is the only way we know.”
This book has only a few thousand words, but you’ll feel every one of them.