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F. Douglas Brown

 10-07-2015

 
F. Douglas Brown
 
Zero

In the hallway, racing to catch the phone—The blaring football
Anecdotes—People are in my house eating cheese—I am racing

To catch the phone—The hallway holds my history—Faces radiating
And I am traveling back: their eyes, their ears, increasing

The rate of change—If the quantity for hallway, h, varies with
Time, t, then write: h(t) to represent the value my life

Has moved in a matter of seconds—Multiply mayhem and
Marvin’s music—Divide reception and recline

Subtract clenching and letting go—Covering and letting go—Subtract
Creasing then, letting go—Pick up the phone—All

Arithmetic, done—All variables equal baby—Zero is definitely a
Thing making itself known from the inside out

My body has moved from one distance to another
My big body has three thousand zeros at the end of it

So soon, another body, her body will thump—My palm rolling
Across her bare belly—After nine months, skin at its full potential

Screams open

 
This Name
His

Your name forms
The moment your lungs grab
Air out of air—An open
Window, cold building
On the back wall of your throat.
Frances says, “Isaiah,” her southern
Rooted voice swallows
The weight of your birth—
“Isaiah, he sounds important.”
And when I nod, there is a flock
Of pigeons I am letting free.
Their flaps mark the meter
In your name. If there is a feather
Where I am standing, I know Frances
Will see it and know special
The kind of special that appeared
To your mother long before
Your first breath. How the two
Of you talked through
Skin, fluid, placenta still baffles me.
Your conversation,
A code of kicks and her speech.
“Isaiah.”  It falls to floor
And bounces every time— 
The way any good word should:
Existential.
Root.
Reformation.
Frances.
Pomegranate.
Sword.
Quiver.

 
Memento for a Mississippian   

Sunday 8/9
Baby, your daddy is dead, reaches and grabs every part of you through the holes of the receiver until your girlfriend grabs your hand and rubs your back, pushing the air back into your lungs. The drive to his house, a hard oak or metal post, so when you get there, you can barely move, can’t even look at his body when the cops ask for an ID.  There is a TV tray with a half-eaten meal covered by a dirty, wine-stained rag. All you can do is start to clean up. You throw away whole plates and full pots that make your cousins upset. Noise is everywhere even when the men from the funeral home come to talk to you. You grunt, gasp out partial answers for them. The man who comes to take away your father is named Robert. He speaks to you in perfect English while his colleagues cart your dad out on a gurney. You’ve had to ask Robert to repeat what he says two or three times. Robert, says your dad must have died days ago because his body is so stiff. Patience and calmness become Robert’s shiny shoes and his manicured hands.

Saturday 8/8
Dead for ten hours or so. In the kitchen, maggots starting to feed on what’s left in an iron skillet.  Your dad’s paper still folded in half at his door. There is a new card table and five chairs resting on his porch.  JP must have left them. Surely someone else stopped by this day and knocked once or twice, made the effort to see him or hear his voice. Did you call him? A weekend without him is a weekend surrounded by heat and nothing to cool the air.

Friday 8/7
The day he dies. His weed-box in his left hand and a remote in the other. He settles down early to watch baseball or maybe just highlights of a game.  Were there memories of his grandkids or his siblings? Maybe his mother’s cooking takes him in, cradles his tired body while his head nods to the pace of a ball being pitched. The leather mitt and his heartbeat, a synchronized thud.

Thursday 8/6
Garbage day. On a normal Thursday he is up by 5:30 am, pulling the trash to the curb or walking to the store to pick up a beer and hot dogs for JP.  But he had talked to JP who told him I ain’t gon be there until Saturday. Phone calls from bill collectors and your cousin don’t get through easily.  Pimp calls three times and gets nowhere until the fourth. My ass is fine. Stop fuckin’ with me.

Wednesday 8/5
Everyone says hello and good morning when he goes to get his paper and mail. His hands in his pockets until a neighbor notices. Darlin’ I don’t feel so well today. But when Mike from Vegas calls shortly after, Mike makes him feel better. He calls Mike “Pimp” because he has a mansion from here to Figueroa. I’m not lying, Dougi. I’m not lying. Laughter empties several bottles of cheap wine and spills. Red on the carpet, red on a towel wiping the trail leading from the kitchen.

Tuesday 8/4
You go to see your dad and cook him lunch. A black skillet full of taco meat is already on the stove, so much for that. Cant beat this, baby, cant fuck with this weather. You nod and scoop rice onto his plate. I cant eat it all but it’s okay, I’ll eat it later.  You two watch TV and joke. I can’t stand Lamont, you say. Dad, I promise I will never treat you like that. He makes fun of your cousin’s husband, Thomas. Take your broke ass back to Ridley Hill. My son got more sense than all y’all. Pride as hot as a LA summer.

Monday 8/3
Check in with him.  Poppa Brown, you say and he is still reeling with what John Paul said to him the day before. Fuck JP, he says.  The thought of just hanging out tomorrow reassures him. You can hear him open a beer, loud, right into the phone but his I love you is clean, a crisp first sip.

Sunday 8/2
Today, you heard a little dog get hit in the alley behind your building. Screams flail up, seven stories high. You relay the story to your dad and John Paul who both agree that it was shame. They tell stories about Mississippi, get high on their memories of home.  They get into it later, argue about being ready to die.  My baby, gon take care of me. My son gon take care of me, and he rests his hand on your knee. Shakes it as if there were fruit falling from your leg, as if you had all that he needed.
 
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Poems - Bio - Essay - Review - Interview - Reading
 
F. Douglas Brown of Los Angeles is the 2013 Cave Canem Poetry Prize recipient for Zero to Three (University of Georgia 2014). Mr. Brown, an educator for nearly 20 years, teaches English at Loyola High School of Los Angeles, an all-boys Jesuit school. He is both a Cave Canem and Kundiman fellow. His poems have appeared in The Virginia Quarterly (VQR), The Sugar House Review, Cura Magazine, Muzzle Magazine, Transfer Magazine and Santa Clara Review.
 
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Click here to view an essay by F. Douglas Brown
            at Poetry Society of America 
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Poems - Bio - Essay - Review - Interview - Reading
 
A Review of F. Douglas Brown's Zero to Three by Samantha Duncan, first published at The Rumpus

There’s a lot to be observed and lamented in the daily lives of young children. In his new poetry collection, Zero to Three, F. Douglas Brown proves that little stories readily emerge from the details of the developmentally crucial first few years of life. An additional effect of raising families, and one perhaps less talked about, is the transition adults go through when becoming parents. Childbirth, naming a child, sleep challenges, disciplining, and caring for them when they’re sick are all obstacles parents face and Brown puts the truth on the page when conveying a parent’s new role and how their old ones may change.

While the poems in Zero to Three drift seamlessly between the roles of husband, father, and son, the rockier challenges parents face come through in the individual poems. The first few pieces orchestrate the various events surrounding childbirth, from the onset of labor to delivery to naming the child. It’s refreshing to get a father’s perspective on subjects typically covered in poetry by women. In “Circumstance” Brown narrates the birth of his first son:

My hands can only trap the dirt – Your mother knows
The elements of order – Her body a vessel with two captains:

Arms and eyes – Waist and neck – Head and hair –
Hers and yours – What is shared is the ability to breathe –

Unbutton the body and take out another –
Your body, like a clot in her body –

The father’s new role is quickly forced upon him later in the poem, when he notices his wife’s blood loss after she delivers their child but “can’t see because I am holding you – / I am holding you – / And I am holding you.” The repetition of these lines brings a stark realization to the picture, the overwhelming notion of a new priority standing in front of his previous commitments.

From the instant attachment to his son, Brown turns to a fierce love for his daughter. In “Dear Defiance,” he wishes for her to one day “stand up / To your brother and if need be, punch him / In the face or last resort, the ding-ding,” so as to showcase her “surge of feminine power.” In this piece are Brown’s honest, visceral reactions to raising a daughter, the celebratory way in which he speaks of her power and urges her to use it against her brother—his other child—if she feels it necessary. In “Litany,” this power is seen emerging, which causes Brown to reflect on the changes in his role as his daughter grows older:

Cooking a dish of holidays
Accompanying a well-oiled hunger
Saving the best for your brother but taking it
back at the last second
Reading the rights to a recipe for Brussels sprouts
Sugaring the mini mustard cabbages with, “I’ll try it dad.”
Getting too old to pick her wardrobe
Getting too old to pick her up
Getting too old for baby talk’s rattling condescension
Speaking more like a pirate than princess, more queen
than princess

The book’s third section highlights Brown’s parents and his role as a son—things he arguably perceives in a new or deeper way after becoming a parent himself. In “Portraits,” Brown appears surprised to see, in a picture of his mother, that, “The things of dailiness, damp laundry or / Dishes, are nowhere to be found,” and, “Her cigarette and wine all say: Having fun / Not: I was pregnant with you.” It is perhaps the case that, having experienced firsthand the never-ending, exhausting work of raising small children, Brown expects a picture of his mother looking more weary and worn. But seeing an image countering that assumption allows him to see her in a role other than his mother.

Brown also speaks often of his father in these poems, mostly paying homage to his strong work ethic and wisdom, in poems like “These Dead Days”:

His boot strapping do-it-all
Tone, volume turned up to 10
So I can get up early and off to work

His Southern manners
Singing no nonsense
His Folgers, his Palmolive

And his Clorox panacea
Will get me out of trouble
When I need it to

The wisdom has the practicality
Of tea and the know-it-all of a path
Deep in the woods

Again, many of these poems speak in the voice of a child-become-parent with a newfound awareness of the sacrifices and strife that come with raising children. “What Did I Know” tells of the struggles Brown’s father faced while trying to work, raising a family, and taking care of his wife suffering from Alzheimer’s. When his father claims Brown knows nothing of sacrifice, Brown now seems to agree, alluding to his “bumming five bucks from my dad. My hungry hand, / illiterate to the TV in the backroom / comforting the silence of this meal.” Brown’s honesty doesn’t come from regret for his actions, but from a desire to convey his appreciation for his parents’ hard work, especially now that he is a father himself and knows the difficulties of raising and supporting a family.

Perhaps what strings together the poems in Zero to Three so effortlessly is the beat and soundtrack to which they’re often set. Brown appreciates many genres of music, from James Brown, to more current R&B groups, to pop songs featured on the television show Glee. “Body Stubborn,” which is a Bop (three stanzas with a refrain between each) in three sections, best highlights the musicality in the book. It borrows lyrics from Arcade Fire, A Tribe Called Quest, and James Brown to tell narratives from Brown’s son, daughter, and father. The three parts are dispersed throughout the book, rhythmically transitioning between generations of a family.

Other musical references feature looser muses, like “Hit Me Ghazal,” a poem about child discipline that takes odd inspiration from a Glee episode featuring the Britney Spears song, “…Baby, One More Time.” A nod to the song seems unnecessary, in this case, as the poem (a side-by-side contrast between the way Brown was disciplined as a child and the way he disciplines his own decades later) stands strong and separate from the pop culture reference that prompted it.

The broader message of the musicality in these poems seems to hint at taking things in stride, no matter how challenging or painful they may be, along with the reminder that families contain many diverse personalities that must work together to succeed. From the hectic blur of family dynamics amidst raising young children, F. Douglas Brown’s Zero to Three reminds us there is much to learn about what shapes parents into better people.

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Click here to listen to an interview with F. Douglas Brown at Late Night Library 
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Poems - Bio - Essay - Review - Interview - Reading
 
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        Click here to view a reading by Brown




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Click here to buy Brown's book

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F. Douglas Brown



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