The English language, it turns out, caters simultaneously for an aggressive mongrel or a contemptible man with one short word: cur. Poet Christina Thatcher adds another possible definition in the notes to her poetry collection More than you were. ‘Cur’ may also refer to something that’s both predator and victim – as an addict often is, and as Thatcher’s father often was. The cur in the poem ‘Men in Our Family Die Early’ alludes to her father’s father, whose violence echoed in his son’s behaviour.
Thatcher writes bleakly, bluntly about her father’s struggle with addiction until his death from an overdose. Her poetry reads more as a cathartic slosh of rage and love than as a collection curated for a general readership. Some of the poems, though, are exceptionally acute. For anyone who has endured the bitter hardships of being close to an addict, many of Thatcher’s lines are swallowed with a flammable aftertaste. The best ones are lethally pure, neither diluted by excessive images nor doused with pretension.
The blurb announces that Thatcher and her father had a “complex” relationship, and that Thatcher here confronts grief’s “complexities”. Loving an addict, however, can be as simple as celebrating the good version while loathing and fearing the bad version. Until the final line of the final poem Thatcher’s father comes across as an almost monolithically bad presence – his threats and cruelty seem to have wreaked near-unremitting anxiety on his daughter, which left only when he did: “The butterflies died with him”, she writes. The omnipresent references to sweat go some way towards conjuring up the tense, suffocating atmosphere of Thatcher’s early years.
‘When You Sneak Up On Me’ punctures the gut in its articulation of the love-hate ties to an addict: ‘searing headaches … the sensation of being stalked by someone I trusted.’ Thatcher’s descriptions of her father’s demise shatter protocol around respect for those who are deceased: ‘the hot | ooze of an addict’s death’. Her eyes ‘leak like gasoline’ at his fate. She slathers an image of a ‘quiet dirty death, | slipping away unnoticed | like hair down a drain’. The most hard-hitting lines in the collection are in ‘Terminology’ – of grief, which Thatcher wills to “move | to the mind and no longer | bubble up from the gut | – searing and heavy – | like tar.” She perceives her father, even in death, as toxic.
The book’s title, More than you were, hints paradoxically at Thatcher’s father’s littleness; his actions affected the writer profoundly but she renders him small, even simple. Intricacy emerges in the poet herself. As often in the case of a parent-child relationship when the former is an addict, the roles can look reversed to the outside. In the opening poem Thatcher is parental while shaping her father’s obituary; she doesn’t want him to “look bad | next to the other obituaries”, just as a mother “owes it to her son | to dress him well for his school photo”.
By the point of this poetry’s publication, Thatcher gives the impression of having overcome her father’s abuses (“I made you, so I can take you away”, she quotes him saying at one point) to stand as a strong, independent being. His flaws and abuse did not succeed in taking her away, in the end, and her entire body of work here is testimony to that.
Even so, Thatcher bravely puts into words one of the terrifying elements of being an addict’s child: the fear of inheriting the gene. In ‘Reoccuring’, she writes of feeling his mistakes “lurch” through her blood. The worry is palpable. We find out in the poem ‘Learning from our father’ that Thatcher’s brother has already followed some way in those footsteps. He is escorted in handcuffs to their father’s funeral. The pair “hug | like T-Rexes”. (As the saying goes, if we don’t laugh we might cry.)
This defiant, engrossing depiction of a father and a daughter makes for an extremely accomplished poetry collection. Not only is Thatcher far, far more than he was, but she also generously portrays him as he was in his entirety: bad, good, and all that came in-between.
More than you were is available now from Parthian Books.