In theory, this volume should have universal appeal since it deals with subjects we all know: home, family, domesticity. But in fact, such subjects are largely the domain of women and by long tradition have been considered too dull for the serious scrutiny of Art.
What’s more, Robertson’s very male-ness will disqualify him in the eyes of some readers from, as the blurb on the book jacket advertises, “Bring(ing) new passion to the ancient domestic scene.”
If Robertson knows his plainly autobiographical poems about being a stay-at-home father – changing diapers, the endless round of cooking and cleaning, the homemaker’s sense of isolation – leave him at the centre of a sexual-political storm, he ignores the fact. There are no poems here about the implications of being a man in a “woman’s” job. Robertson writes about fatherhood, not manhood.
That truth is clear from the first poem. In Housecleaning, the narrator’s sensibility is explicitly male, “By the time you get home from work / I’ve already thrown your parents out / or it’s my parents / or your ex-husband. / See him lying askew in the snow / and me in the doorway / dusting off my Popeye hands.”
Later, in Every Father’s Dream for His Daughter, the bluntness may repel women readers, but men will understand the bleak sentiment: “When she’d cry in the night / I’d change her / wipe the folds of her sex / with a tissue. / I never thought this was where guys would stick / ten dollar bills at a club / called Marco’s…”
Adult Language Warning is divided somewhat arbitrarily into three sections, each titled after a poem as is the book itself. But certain themes run throughout. The consistently identifiable narrator in these poems keeps up a half-serious lament for his lost youth (“the black halo of a night animal”), and he repeatedly weighs the palpable value of hard-won familial love and intimacy against the chimera of posterity with which poetry tantalizes him: “I write a poem, a story, I write / the very godhead onto paper / and my family waves me quiet from the TV.”
Here and there he leavens this sometimes heavy recipe with pleasant vernacular metaphor (a guitar becomes a “set of curves some men call their only real love”), stray vignettes (Writer’s Block, Cancer), or a pure bagatelle (Relaxing on a Sunday).
While it’s unwise to pick up any book without at least some healthy suspicion of the author’s own identity and bias, there are some books for which the warning is particularly crucial. The fact that W.P. Kinsella is not himself an Indian will shape our view of his “Indian” stories. Brett Easton Ellis’s talkshow denunciation of violence against women may not reassure when we encounter their torture, rape and killing in his bloodthirsty fiction.
As for this small book of poems, there’s nothing so sinister about the author’s bias, and it’s printed clearly on the jacket for all to see. It says “William Robertson is a homemaker.”
With his sex and vocation clearly established, Robertson gets on with a book that is as sharply written and honest as it is apolitical. While it may be true that few women have gained too little recognition writing on these domestic themes, that’s a reader’s shortcoming, not a writer’s.