“In the car he says, the important thing is that you’re okay.” Some fathers go beyond the call of duty to be there for their children, picking them up when they fall, setting them on their feet, hoping, believing in progress, even when those children are adults. Throughout Fish Boy, John Gosslee focuses on one father who does this, highlighting his love for his son and the son’s struggle within his own skin: “I was born raw, will die muscle, but know I’m a shell….” This same struggle is present in the titled poem, “Fish Boy,” as the son questions his own purpose for being, adding: “…he wants out of his skin and the water.”
Through his use of poignant language, Gosslee yanks at the heartstrings, tapping into memory and future fears of loss. The collection starts with “My Beautiful Father and the Fire Bird,” where the reader seems to accidently intrude on intimate musings, the realization of life coming to its end. The father is older and not well: “The words of his body locked in a stroke the doctors can’t edit.” The son must face this and himself, even though his grief is clear. And when the loss is complete, he battles between succumbing to the pain and trying to live through it: “It’s the first time I open a door, look out a window….” As each poem unfolds another layer of the turmoil and love within their relationship, Gosslee includes brilliant imagery to emphasize heartache as found in his poem “Proximity,” with the lines “a few feet of flesh above the stone” and “the silent marriage with the ground.” Though death is inevitable, Gosslee provides his readers time to reflect over how hard and short life is and how powerful the bonds between loved ones can be.
It is Gosslee’s command of emotions that keeps the reader holding her breath, waiting to be told to exhale. In tones that are at once reflective, accepting, and forlorn, he walks his readers through the anguish of life, and although sad, it is the love of father and son that seeps from the pages and into our veins. And the reader holds on to each word: “He says, whoever you become now, I will love him.” The raw desire for acceptance resonates with every child, especially adult children.
The structure of poems such as “My Beautiful Father and the Fire Bird,” “Prison-Body,” and “My Father Defies Gravity” offer snippets of reflection, who father and son were and became. These contrasts are often stark, forcing the reader into their own reflective wondering about who they were, when they last called. In one contrast, his father “walks through the brown field in Vietnam… The nurse spoons in pureed beets.” The meaning is clear. Life is short and even heroes fall at the end of their stories. Then to the son: “I brush his hair in the hospital room… I tell the doctor, shake his limp right hand.” The son, a man, takes his father’s place in caring for the other, and he does so with incredible regard. Again, Gosslee’s imagery adds conviction. In “Coastal,” “I Watch the Forest Grow Out of the Body,” and “Cold December,” the imagery forces us to see and feel along side of the son. Memory cannot be separated from the present, from the mix of emotions. Within the pages of Fish Boy, Gosslee also provides genuine glimpses of self-doubt and regret, in addition to the love and loss, that causes a need to step aside and think. Particularly, when the narrator seeks out solitude as seen in “Cold December”—and yet he seems lonely. It is a winter’s night: “The bees hibernate, the bare trees are winter’s trophies.” By the end of the poem, even the bees are cast aside, and he is left completely alone with his thoughts.
However, it is through this self-reflection that the son moves forward. Through self-reflection, the son faces himself and wins. Again, Gosslee shows superior craftmanship; the reader is invested in the outcome and well-being of the son: “Father, I’m not running anymore.” The reader exhales, thankful and happy that the son is okay. Fish Boy is a tremendous tribute to a faithful father. And it cannot be denied that it is a work of self-discovery. This collection of poems will find home within every reader’s being, etching a whirlwind of heartache and hope, love and loss into memory and experience. It will not be forgotten even long after it has been placed on the bookcase.
Fish Boy, by John Gosslee. Oakland, California: Nomadic Press, March 2018. 46 pages. $10.00, paper.
Tammara Hoyt is a tumbleweed who loves the desert, hot weather, and spicy foods. Currently, she’s working towards her MFA at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. She lives in Oklahoma with family and two dogs, Hershel and Neo.