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Constance Alexander: New poems by Kentucky’s Frank X Walker are born out of a churning cauldron

After the dedication to all survivors of father loss, readers of poet Frank X Walker’s new book — “Last Will, Last Testament” — are confronted with a startling statement: “In a family of secrets, he who asks hard questions sounds like a gun.”

These compelling poems seesaw between fathers and sons, examining how those relationships pass sorrow and strength from one generation to another, often in unequal measure. In the case of Frank X Walker, he declares that “These poems were born out of the cauldron churning every possible high and low a person can feel when it comes to navigating the woodland of life and death.”

Walker, a Danville native whose reputation stretches far beyond the commonwealth of Kentucky, is honest about the lifelong struggle to build a relationship “with a father who was an invisible man” for most of Frank X’s younger years.

Simultaneously paired with that challenge was the role of new father that Walker embraced as he awaited the birth of a new son about three months before his father passed. Both experiences inspire poems that interweave the roots of the living and the dying.

Watching his father die of cancer, the poet recognizes his own role as conduit between past and future. Present in the cancer ward, he listens to “…daddy play dodge ball/ with the sandman,” and then compares it to “holding vigil over our newborn/ during his first night at home.”

The elder Walker is “a skinny reclining Buddha” who smiles just like the baby, his grandson.

As the infant gains weight from “warm breast milk/ gulped so fast he often forgets to breathe,” the grandfather is losing weight, “threatening to disappear.”

The child is robust, with “soft pinch-me flesh” but the elder’s “clavicle almost breaks his skin.”

In the poem entitled “Because It’s a Funeral,” the speaker admits that he understands what he is supposed to do at his father’s service. Even choked by tears, he feels guilty about not lamenting, “and talking about what a great man/ and a great father he was.”

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

The inner conflict pits mother against father even in death because:

…telling the truth sounds like

disrespect of the father, and telling a lie

dishonors a mother

who preceded him in death,

who might have lived longer,

who may have had a better life

if not for some of the choices they both made?

The collision of life and death is inevitable. The cuts and bruises heal, but the scars are exposed in “Last Will, Last Testament.” In the end, the pain is mitigated by the joyful birth of a son.

The last poem in the book includes an epigraph, an African proverb that declares, “A person is not dead until the people no longer speak the names.” In it, the poet acknowledges that when his father became a parent he was likely unaware how his actions would impact his children. As a result, he spawned survivors who believe in love, forgiveness, and family.

The final words are a blessing:

We wish you everlasting peace.

We will always speak your names.

Frank X Walker is a professor of English and African American and Africana Studies at University of Kentucky. Former Kentucky Poet Laureate and author of ten collections of poetry, he is co-founder of the Affrilachian Poets and has been lauded with many honors including a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Black Caucus American Library Association Honor Award for Poetry. “Last Will, Last Testament” was published by Accents Publishing, an independent press for brilliant voices.

More information about the poet is online at www.frankxwalker.com. For a current catalog of current and upcoming titles from Accent, log on to www.accents-publishing.com.

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