“Icarus Does the Dishes,” by Tommye Blount, appears in the Mar/Apr issue of the Kenyon Review
It is strange to write from an editorial perspective, which presupposes power, about a peer’s work I so admire, which has within it the indisputable power of true poetry. The understated surfaces of Tommye Blount’s poems belie the living heat that drives them, the clarity of their perceptions, and the quiet disjunctions to their lyric fluidity. These poems feel completely grounded and unpretentious, yet they do extraordinary things, whether examining our culture’s eroticization of violence to black bodies, as in “Not an Elegy for Erik Rhodes,” or articulating an experience of grief in which the speaker implicates and even makes fun of himself, in “Icarus Does the Dishes.”
The title of this latter poem stitches the mythic to the mundane, predicting the poem’s approach to describing an impossible situation. In the original myth, the father, Daedalus, makes wings out of wax for his son Icarus; the wings melt when Icarus flies close to the sun and he falls to his death. In Blount’s poem, the speaker is caregiving for an ill, incapacitated father, and the fall is where the poem begins: “It leaves a mark when I fall / on the floor of my father’s kitchen,” Blount writes:
Only a few days it’s been
of lifting him up from one place,
then putting him down somewhere else,
then driving to work for the late shift
while a nurse looks after him
for five hours, three times a week—
all we can afford.
Blount’s unsentimental rendering of this labor undercuts the myth, but the poem also subtly invokes and inverts it; here, far from flying, the father can’t get to his own feet, but he has also “given” his son, like the instruction to fly with wax wings, a task that is superhuman and unsustainable. When the speaker gets up from falling it’s because he has no choice; there is work to do: “I ignore the soreness / of the bruise taking shape on my ass,” Blount writes, “because these dishes won’t clean themselves / and father hasn’t had his bath.” The bath, too, is described unsentimentally, and with dark humor. “It embarrasses us,” the speaker acknowledges:
especially the rolling back of his foreskin,
the veins like tiny stitches on the inside
of a minotaur’s mask, so I let him wash that part
while I look away.
Where a lesser poet would capitalize on this moment to invoke a shared sense of vulnerability and grief, Blount’s clear eye shows how the collective first person here, that “us,” shares only a sense of mutual estrangement and embarrassment, an unspoken agreement that first the speaker, then the father, will look away. “He does not see me / like this, on the floor,” Blount writes, shifting back to the fall with which the poem began:
and agile, it is no accident, but
a tantrum. I throw the dishes—shards
all around me like a constellation
of stars for which I have no names.
We are lost.
The speaker, alone with the stars he has made with broken dishes, has no choice but to clean them up, but only after he has implicated not only the father in his illness, but himself; the fall is described as a “tantrum,” and, when the father asks “through the wall, / . . . if I’m OK; / if I need him to do anything?” the speaker tells (us) the truth:
Please die, I whisper, then sweep
the stars, turn back toward the sun
soaking in the gray water.
I am struck, here, by how the poem’s ending is so quiet and understated. The speaker’s longing comes out as a whisper, and the “sun / soaking in the gray water” suggests both that the sun itself has fallen and that it is reflected, an image of simultaneous loss and luminosity. When I read I always hope for the poem that will say a difficult thing and allow for its difficulty. Blount shows us not a superhuman world, but a human one: if only we could all inhabit it so humanly.