Domestic Grandeur: A Review of John Estes’ Kingdom Come
In the very first poem in Kingdom Come, entitled “Emptied Term,” John Estes describes, with devastating humbleness, a would-be father’s reaction to his wife’s miscarriage: “my backyard sorrow paled / beside her indoor grief.” As a husband and father, he grieves for and with his wife. As a poet, however, he also struggles with his “dread of the miscarriage poem // that might be avoided / but would not be averted.” All of a poet’s life experiences, including the unpleasant ones, are potential fodder for Estes’ poetry; in this poem’s epigraph, he quotes Nietzsche: “Poets behave ruthlessly / toward their own experiences: they exploit them.” Indeed, throughout the collection, Estes exploits his own experiences ruthlessly, ranging in tone from perplexed intellectualism to wide-eyed wonder, often within the space of a few lines. Yet, his compassion and disarming sense of humor continually charm and surprise in poems that explore the details of domestic life from a father’s perspective in order to discover its grandeur.
Estes is the director of the creative writing program at Malone University in Canton, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and sons. Kingdom Come is his first book-length collection of poetry. He has published two chapbooks, Breakfast with Blake at the LaocoÃ¶n (Finishing Line Press, 2007) and Swerve (PSA, 2009), which was selected by C.K. Williams for a National Chapbook Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America. Individual poems have appeared in print and online in publications such as Poetry Daily, The Literary Review, and Tin House, but it is as a collected whole that these poems resonate against one another to create a unified vision of a man grappling with the big picture while immersed in life’s minutiae.
In this collection, Estes creates a familiar story arc, describing a man who seeks art and love, gets married, becomes a father, and reevaluates his relationship to art and love as he tends to his growing family. The poems that address these themes are precise, heartfelt, playful, and elegant in their construction. Estes relishes dense wordplay, which forces the reader to slow down in order to fully understand the poems. Yet, the poet never loses sight of the emotional value and impact of his art. Wordiness is beautifully balanced with concise images, emotional depth, and often comical situations. For example, in “The Existence of the World Is a Controversy,” Estes describes a young man who dedicates himself to art at the expense of a social life:
What passes for turning inward, for study and for art,
can slip unnoticed into a well-practiced jeopardy,
a narrative fortress projecting the story
of separation into a post-quotidian SIGNIFICANT LIFE.
Estes’ wonderfully dry humor (particularly the words in ALL CAPS) takes his younger self to task for pretentious self-absorption. This dual vision of older speaker looking back at younger self allows the reader to recognize such posturing for what it (usually) is: a defensive stance against emotional vulnerability.
Later in the same poem, however, the speaker finds himself shedding his old defense mechanisms: “On my honeymoon, I thought to myself, / You’ll never be alone again. … / I wondered what might happen / if I surrendered, with a few conditions, / to this bright casualty.” A major shift in attitude is presented as a simple moment, when the speaker allows himself first to wonder, then to surrender to the reality of allowing another person into his “fortress.” Subtly, Estes suggests that love might be a catalyst for the human ability to change, but it is the individual who has to open himself to it for it to take root.
Estes’ explorations of emotional vulnerability coexist with graphic, and often funny, descriptions of the male body, its beauty as well as its, shall we say, functionality. Several poems recall Allen Ginsberg and other masculine-identified poets in their unflinching celebration of the phallic. Estes adds his own gleeful spin in poems such as “School of Prophets,” in which he describes, “Standing at the center urinal / waiting on the urine, / I saw, with the prescience of Elijah, a scene….” In his “vision,” he imagines peeing at a urinal with his yet-unborn sons on either side of him, “spraying our cakes / with readymade fountains.” This quotidian scene becomes evocative as its speaker continues to explore its ramifications:
I feel, even now–sensing
them, their sideways
glances–no small surge of pride
in this feat, at the double
portion of my spirit
split and shared,
unequal but without enmity.
The last lines refer to the poem’s epigraph, a quotation of Joshua 6:26, which describes the curse on the builder of Jericho, and how it would be shared–unequally–by his firstborn and youngest children. This seems to be a trick of Estes’s: juxtaposing a deep understanding of history, especially Biblical, artistic, and literary history, with bodily functions not often discussed in polite company to create a portrait of a moment, a well-considered reaction to the everyday.
As masculine-focused as some of the poems are, Estes has deep compassion for women, especially his wife. Unlike some male poets who glorify their masculinity at the expense of femininity (and some female poets who do the exact opposite), Estes does not denigrate women as he celebrates being a man. Several poems express awe, even reverence, about a woman’s ability to create life. Others address the man’s role in procreation, often in irreverent ways. In “To My Sperm, Nightswimming,” the poem’s speaker actually addresses his own sperm after sex:
Off she goes, and you with her —
“Verticality is your worst
enemy” were my last words — to bed,
to sleep, perchance to conceive.
The silly setup (and its amusing paraphrase of Shakespeare) slowly gives way to a meditation on what it means to actively attempt to create a child:
…so ride or outride
the propagating waves engined
on these mensal syzygies–gamete
earth, thanatos sun, nuciform
sea- or sky- or homeward
toward your bountiful oblivion.
Estes’s dense language conveys the intricate melding of emotion, science, and mystery involved in conception. Over the course of a single poem, Estes transforms a humorous scenario into a resonant meditation on the wonder of the creation of life.
Within the book’s chronology, a child is born, and the issue of vulnerability returns. In “I Foresee the Breaking of All That Is Breakable,” the speaker lists a variety of precious items, “like this blue / tea mug, carried from Crete as a gift / from a friend,” then states that if someone can imagine these irreplacable objects without
fixation on the day you will stumble
and drop it, or smack it
against the sink divider or brush
it with a hand reaching
for the letter opener, you are junzi:
a superior person, as Confucius had it.
Of course, what is unspoken in this poem is what gives it the most power: despite the poem’s placement in the chapter entitled “In Which a Child Is Conceived and Born,” the newborn baby is never mentioned. It is almost as if the new father’s anxiety about keeping his child safe is such a dangerous issue, he can speak of it only obliquely. This poem is a rare yet pointed exception to Estes’ willingness to face any emotional or physical issue in his poems in a simultaneously straightforward and contemplative manner. Its exception speaks volumes.
In one of the collection’s most relatable poems, Estes evokes a sleep-deprived parent’s confused thought processes when a toddler refuses to stay asleep. The title of the poem becomes the first line, as well: “My son, two, who wakes in our bed and screams in terror if we’re not there because he thinks we have betrayed and/or abandoned him,”
used to stoke pity, even fear
in places where now I am merely spent.
Estes captures perfectly those moments of lying in the dark with a child:
…waiting for his breathing
to slow and grip to loosen, signs
that it’s safe to edge to the edge of the bed and maybe, maybe,
slip out and live a little,
finish a film or a book or write or make love to my wife
as I hear normal adults do of an evening…
As the father lies there, torn between falling asleep and the pull of the part of himself that is not purely parent, his mind drifts. He begins to think about, of all things, van Gogh, wondering whether the mad painter experienced a similar “dreadful pause” with each painting, the urge to paint “prodding him, in the goading sense, / to resist the warmth of the work’s opposite,” that is, sleep. Lying in the dark, the father compares his consuming desire to live like a “normal adult,” a desire so strong he resists falling asleep, despite his exhaustion, and van Gogh’s encompassing need to paint, day or night, because he must. In this poem, attempting to “live a little” feels like a form of insanity. It is a feeling to which many parents can relate.
In one of the final poems of the book, “The Banging Wall,” Estes describes a family in a hotel room listening to the neighbors’ headboard bang rhythmically against the wall, which, characteristically, sparks a series of contemplations about the struggles between the poet’s artistic urges and his parental responsibilities. He recalls how earlier in the day, during a hike “on the wild verge of America,” he had hoped to contemplate the landscape’s elements “so as to wring out of them some real clarification.” Instead, the father found:
My attempt to imitate the conditions of solitude
ended abruptly to chase down a feral boy oblivious
to danger or death, on whose behalf I am regularly forced
to keep my being in disrepair.
The father’s “vain wish for a minute or two of nonduality” reminds him of a dream/vision he once had, “when the voice of the vision said without saying: / you can not know for whom you work.” He suddenly realizes that, sometimes, where you are is just where you should be: chasing toddlers rather than contemplating existence, listening to neighbors banging the headboard rather than making love to your own spouse. All of these elements (and more) combine in the moment of the poem, creating a sense of cosmic oneness for the speaker as well as the reader.
Throughout these poems, Estes grapples with the domestic banality of crying babies and bodily fluids while recognizing that these things add up to something more than the sum of their parts. In Estes’ capable hands, the quotidian leads to the sublime, and what once felt disparate and adversarial becomes a moment of attained wisdom. Kingdom Come is full of such moments. It is a collection not to be missed, and a great gift for dads deeply involved in the day-to-day domestic grandeur.