“dear Otis” encompasses lives I want to understand, but currently don’t. My grandfather, referenced as “Daddy Warren,” passed away before I was born and my mother, referenced as “Momma,” passed away when I was ten. My middle name is Warren, but aside from that and a few stories, I feel very little connection to him. In order to craft a small history, I wrote a terse poem using my mother as a frame.
The poem begins with three musicians my mother adored: Otis Redding, Barry White, and Luther Vandross. The poem is written as a letter or ode to Redding as the speaker creates a competition for who the mother loves the most. The musicians contextualize the mother, yet allow for the potential interpretation of the musicians as her kids.
The poem immediately moves to mourning by mentioning that the speaker’s mother lost her own father. Fort Valley is the actual college my mother attended when her father passed away, but this stanza also connects his appearance to that of Otis, or so the speakers wants you to think. The mourning of the poem is unavoidable since all three musicians are also deceased, so the sense of unavoidable or untenable loss is heavy.
I don’t believe contradiction can be escaped, so I often allow it into my writing. The first line of stanza three immediately undercuts the previous stanza’s final line. This moment purposefully happens in the middle of the poem: there’s loose similarity between the mother’s father and Redding, but the speaker needs that faux lineage since he has very little to hold on to. Other poems in this series highlight that the speaker’s mother is deceased, but I left that idea out of the poem. I don’t want the sense of death to be too large, especially since it’s already so present.
The poem doesn’t confirm that the grandfather is dead, but the final stanzas move towards that realization. There’s still a desire to create a story by describing the grandfather in an actual photograph. The earlier stanzas were complete sentences leading up to stanza three, the crux of the poem. This is where we have the admitted lie “Don’t look like you.” This is where we have “Refrain lookin at it:” and a transition into the fourth stanza and end stop punctuation to push us into the fifth stanza. The goal of the punctuation is to gain speed before the word “headstone.”
Hopefully the reader recognizes that the grandfather is deceased and the only possible relationship is through this photograph, which isn’t even in color. The speaker uses the word “redbone,” but the final line of stanza four complicates that moment: “A gelatin silver print” has an entire line by itself. I chose this descriptor because readers might be thrown off by the phrase. You either know the process ended mid 20th century or you don’t recognize it and have to look it up. After a little research, it’s clear even the technique used to hold the grandfather is barely used today. Even with all of these instances, the final line attempts to reset the poem. It’s my goal that the final line will breed ambiguity and require a second reading of the poem. If you choose to re-enter the poem, you’re hit with the love of the mother again and how it’s focused on the musicians and the grandfather, highlighting that love must be a large part of her personality.
Max L. Chapnick writes poems about physicists, travel, and space. In 2014, he completed an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML at Victoria University of Wellington and researched New Zealand art/science collaborations on a US Student Fulbright grant. His poems “To Jane Apreece Davy” and “Nucleators” have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize this year. He is a co-editor of the IIML’s online literary journal Turbine for 2014. His poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Evansville Review, The Legendary, Rejectamenta, and other literary journals. In 2013, he graduated from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, with degrees in Physics and English. He is 23 and from White Plains, New York. About writing, he says, “It is big meaning implied by the brick-by-brick decisions of putting words together. It is the possibility of changing lives in the nitty grammar of ideas.”