Book review: Up all night

Jack Underwood, Not Even This: Poetry, Parenthood and Living Uncertainly, Corsair, £14.99, ISBN 9781472156082
Stephanie Burt on a poet’s prose study of fatherhood

. . .

When our younger child was about five months old, they insisted (as far as we could tell) on sleeping in the same bed as myself and my partner. They were still nursing. They were tiny, and tiny humans deserve cuddles. So I contorted myself, night after night, and fell asleep beside two lovely humans, one adult and one very far from it, and woke up curled, achy and awkward, and bent like a question mark.

A few weeks like that and I couldn’t walk without shooting pains: I had given myself sciatica. I met my first chiropractor, and my first physical therapist. I got better. I wouldn’t have traded a minute. And the poet Jack Underwood’s prose study of his first few years as a parent reminds me of those few weeks curled up in bed: tender, and careful, and loving, and compressed, and bent uncomfortably out of shape.

Let me explain. Before he became a parent, Underwood stalled out on a “book about uncertainty”, both the Keatsian poetic kind (living in “mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact”) and the kind identified by Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, a basis for quantum mechanics. Having decided to write about his small human (whose name he omits, except on the acknowledgements page), Underwood tries to connect the doubts, uncertainties and mysteries he observes around his daughter to the more quantifiable (or are they?) uncertainties of modern physics from that previous book. The result is a thoughtful and – above all – tender study of fatherhood and childhood, curled up uneasily around material from modern physics and maths.

It’s a lovely volume nonetheless. New parents (if they ever find the time to read a book) will recognise themes: parents with older children will remember them. Is language really, as Wordsworth suspected, a prison, a form of violence done to infants’ experience, a “dulled, violently categorical version of being alive?” Watching his baby, Underwood fears as much. As she becomes a toddler, as she acquires language, her sense of time changes: the poet can “watch you forge a temporality of your own, bruising the air with your voice, taking your first steps, upturning furniture, brandishing your future like a red plastic spoon.” Her changing sense of time suggests the unmeasurable “duration” that Henri Bergson saw in human experience (like the American critic Jonathan Culler, Underwood sees the same durational presence in poems). Turning from present to future, Underwood fears for the world his daughter will see, “the long life you had been sold and told to prepare for” wrecked by adults’ greed. Nonetheless he’s glad “we got to be here. / and to have lived / at all.”

Parenthood is, of course, political; it’s also numerical (four months, five months, one year, almost two). Enjoying the “situationist, deconstructed shopping experience” of his daughter’s pretend store, Underwood admits “an urge to protect you from the further story of money”, from the social facts and “communal performance, through countless daily exchanges”, of debt and capital. (He also, bizarrely, claims that “At the time of writing there are 1,912 five-pound notes in circulation”, and 43,357 twenties: these numbers in fact – according to the Bank of England website – reflect the total value of all fivers and twenties circulating in 2017, in millions of pounds.) The closer the book gets to maths, the more it feels like an uneasy hybrid of Underwood’s pre-parenthood project with the later baby-and-toddler book. Academic debates as to whether “maths is a fiction”, whether numbers are ontologically real, keep up only a strained relation to a child’s early months, via the false certainties demanded, and never received, in a panic attack. (Is safety real? Am I real?)

Does Underwood write primarily to his daughter (who may or may not ever read this book about her) or about his daughter to us? Sometimes I’m not sure: that uncertainty inheres in the work of parenting, so much of which can’t be made clear even to other parents – they have other children, and you’re working, at home, with yours. Other kinds of uncertainty come along with the work of raising a fragile child, and all children are fragile at first: “before you were born, I fought […] against endless dark visions of dropping you.” (Me too.)

But sometimes the work is play. She collects, and Underwood helps her, “your tiny sun-blanched snail shell, an acorn, two bits of string”, “four old train tickets, the bright orange corner of a takeaway menu”: what delights! I thought of Robert Frost’s “Weep for what little things could make them glad”.

“Tired of teaching you not to do things”, Underwood prefers the moments when he can let his daughter be “deeply silly” instead: “we can all be chickens”. Her silliness reminds him how “grateful” he is for “silliness among men”, the antidote to “toxic masculine competition”. Uneasy with rules that taught him how to be a guy, Underwood wonders elsewhere about robots and transhumanists and head transplantation: would he be the same guy with the same head on a new body? “What if the new [person] rejects the old knowledge in the head, refuses their name, their family, wants to start again?”

For philosophers, it’s a familiar conundrum; for trans people like me, it’s a trope, one among many I was surprised to find here. Underwood also admits he dislikes his speaking voice. As for his physical body, “I spend so much time inside my head that my body is like the piece of furniture the television sits on. I prefer the days when I don’t have to notice it.” He loves the experience of pushing a buggy: “Women find my presence benign. I feel genderless”. “In your mind”, he tells his daughter, “I can be a girl too […] When I agree to be a girl you see no failure in my performance.” As a child he wanted to be like St Joan: “I prefer the company of girls”, he mused at age nine or ten. “I just want people to like me. My gender feels like something happening with an increasing external pressure”, and puberty felt unimaginably far away.Underwood is cisgender and straight: he says so himself. And yet his feelings about being a dad remind me of mine from back when I tried to be one, right up until I realized that I was a girl.

The poet’s attempt to wrap his baby book around a prior book about physics does get awkward, but the same attempt creates unprecedented delights. A needy, delightful, vulnerable baby is, for Underwood, like a black hole: “The daughter’s massive present bends the fabric” of spacetime, as of a trampoline. “It creates a curvature of spacetime”, so that all things are drawn to it.

And here Underwood agrees, not just with one or two poets about the nature of parenthood, but with a main line of poems on the topic. Parenthood makes the child, at first all the time and then only sometimes, the glowing centre of a parent’s universe, at once an unreadable mystery and the known centre around which all unknowns get rearranged. This child, the most important thing in the world, hence the most serious, also generates very silly surprises, juxtapositions, splurts and yoips and enthusiasms that we can only attempt to comprehend. Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’ said so, portentously, and Thomas Hood’s parody said so with rather more realism:

­­    Thou young domestic dove!
(He’ll have that jug off, with another shove!)
           Dear nurseling of the hymeneal nest!
           (Are those torn clothes his best!)
           Little epitome of man!
(He’ll climb upon the table, that’s his plan!)
Touched with the beauteous tints of dawning life –
           (He’s got a knife!)

The great American poet Laura Kasischke took on the same contradictions more seriously in the early 2000s with her own poems about young children, among them ‘Do Not Leave Baby Unattended (Manufacturer’s Warning)’:

My attention
is a net
sewn of smoke and weight. Even

if I died, my eyes would have to be
always open underground, or blinking
in the sky. Who-

ever you are, up all night
embroidering warnings and disclaimers
on our things, sleep

easy, please.

I hope Underwood, and the rest of his family – having made it through the terrible twos – are sleeping easier tonight: I recommend his study of those years, in particular, to other parents, who have already made it through. As for the readers of poetry who might want to be parents, but are not parents yet, I’ll recommend Underwood’s concise and personal volume to you too, while adding as most parents would: you have no idea.

Stephanie Burt’s latest book is After Callimachus (Princeton University Press, 2020). This article was first published in The Poetry Review, 111:3, autumn 2021. © The Poetry Review and the author.