A review of Father Verses Sons: A Correspondence in Poems by Herbert Gold

Reviewed by Mark Steadman

Father Verses Sons: A Correspondence in Poems
by Herbert Gold
Rare Bird
March 2024, Hardcover, 280 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1644284261

During the Covid Lockdown, Ari Gold decided to start a poetry correspondence with his 98 year old father. Worried that his dad might be getting a bit lonely, and keen to help him exercise his writing skills he mailed him a poem. ‘Scribble me a poem, Dad’ was the opening line and what followed was a correspondence, now transcribed into a book soon to be published as Father Versus Sons. The now-deceased father Ari was writing to is Herbert Gold, the man who allegedly introduced Tom Wolfe to acid and almost had a fight with Norman Mailer, but then again who didn’t? A central figure of the beatnik generation, Herbert described in his book Travels in San Francisco, his life in and around North Beach, his four word description of which was ‘Italian jollity and cappuccino’. Herbert would hang out at the famous Caffe Trieste (allegedly where Francis Ford Coppola adapted The Godfather) with Allen Ginsburg, Alan Watts and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He was the last man standing of that troupe and one imagines him wrapped in a navy corduroy, turtleneck jumper and smoking a pipe whilst he scribbled away.

For the boys, if not quite for Herbert, the book is the first set of published poetry. The book reads therefore as something of an exercise or scrap book. Each poem’s call and response from father to son has a similar structure or length, some are haikus, some are just single words. the pages interspersed with pictures of the family, in younger days, with the mother still in the frame (she died in a helicopter crash in ’91). Perhaps due to practice (it’s not clear what order the poems were written in), the verse gets stronger as the book goes along, the three find their groove, when the subject turns to death, the trio’s flair for dark comedy bringing the subject to life. About growing old Herbert opines:

Time is doing to me
what the sun does
not to a watered acorn in warmed soil
but to an acorn
on the asphalt of a street
sometimes its done faster
by a passing truck

The death of the mother of the family, as well as Herbert’s own mortality being the two most prominent themes throughout. In his late 90’s (Old enough for the funeral of a daughter) Herbert’s poems are punchier and it’s reassuring to see he’s retained the gift for a memorable phrase: “Bullet-headed shelly” “i’m still a memory creature” “Till vaccine does us part”. The family obviously draws on a wealth of literary references, there are e. e. cummings inspired parenthesis that litter the pages as well as nods to Shakespeare (I sleep, I dream) and Keats (ode to a cam girl). Spending time with the other denizens of the Caffe Trieste during the 80s surely rubbed off on him. But Herbert wears his influences on his sleeve, not for him the stream of consciousness of Ginsberg or the surrealness of Kerouac, instead we get the Sysyphean verses:

I thought I had a limit
But as a I push the clock
Up the mountain
This clock grows heavier
And the mountains taller
And the limits out of reach
Or the e.e.cummings esque
A mercedes carries off all the Pattys
I make do with a Rachel

And the Edward lear inspired “Mental Neuralgia Disease”:

another thing to hate as years go by
is youngsters think its sweet to say you’re spry

Death dominates the book, but Herbert has a comic’s touch. He seems to accept his death with alacrity. Instead of ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ he says:

When the flower rots, declines like bitter decay.
Let’s go like that you and I

Or in Diagnosis and Verdict, more humorously:

Even well into my eighties
I thought I was a young man
I knew I would die one day
But the diagnosis would have to be
He died of the complications of young age

There’s melancholy elsewhere, when talking about his failing short-term memory: “My secrets are secrets even from me” or in his description of dream encounters with his deceased wife:

Today pass me a kiss
Dream darling, one for me
And then one more.

Both the boys seem to have picked up their father’s subversive comic style. Ari’s strongest poem,

Pleasurevision, begins:
four columns and a swing
rope the rainbowed girl
through aquamarine leaves.

He could be describing one of his dad’s acid trips. The final poem by Ethan evokes Edna Millay’s conscientious objector. But the stoicism of her classic work is replaced by the nihilistic humour that pervades the book and Ethan’s work in particular. ”I shall die, but that is all I shall do for death.” Becomes

Come visit, Death, don’t be scared!
You belong here, you know
Though none of us want you to come
We really really couldn’t live without you

But Herb is the star of the show. His poems the more serious and funnier ones at the same time.
His death, he knows will come soon, but his humour never fails him:

Someone famous will die that day
My day
And the newspaper will report
“More obituaries on page 24.”

About the reviewer: Mark Steadman writes book reviews and articles freelance. Before taking up writing he studied philosophy at Kings college London before working as a teacher. He now writes full-time.