Book Review

In his debut collection, Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara, William Fargason explores his own grief, generational trauma, and the process of coming to grips with what it may mean to be a man. His catalogue examines several typical adolescent male experiences—like that of a hunting trip, religious upbringing, or struggle with anxiety and depression—and he specifically details his own ordeals in ways that many men of his generation will find relatable. Fargason’s book won the 2019 Iowa Poetry Prize and the 2020 Florida Book Award in Poetry (Gold Medal). This work conscientiously scrutinizes the sense of toxic masculinity that often plagues father-son relationships, and it is a reminder that what hides in the home can be devastating.

The collection is alarmingly poignant and includes some of Fargason’s series of poems with titles beginning, “When My Father . . . .” The mood of Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara is painful and forthright from its first poem, “When My Father Calls Me a Pussy.” We immediately bear some of the stress of this relationship, even before the first line intensifies it, “it means get up     it means he doesn’t care.” As Fargason goes on to detail experiences of quitting baseball, gutting deer, and being the “son he got” and “not the son     he wanted,” he wrestles with what it might take to gain his father’s conditional love. The way Fargason juxtaposes the words “got” and “gut” amplifies the poem’s tension as he paints a picture of his patriarch’s expectations:

I’m the son he got     he means when I gut

the deer     I should start at the nutsack     I should skin it
myself . . .

Though the strained relationship between Fargason and his father remains one of the most prominent of the collection, it’s clear from the beginning that Fargason wants to see his father in an empathetic light despite the abuse he’s suffered through the man’s actions. Like it does a bloodline, the theme of generational trauma also runs through Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara. It’s unveiled in tragic figurative language as the first piece ends:

it means this is what my father     taught me

which is     to hate myself     it means his father
taught him not to cry     when he shaved his head
on the porch those summers     the hair sticking

to his forehead like grass clippings     it means
this is how     one man     cuts down another
in an effort     notch for notch     to grow larger

He continues to delve into how trauma and pain can infiltrate a family in poems like, “Upon Receiving My Inheritance,” “The View through My Father’s Scope Is a Planet,” and “When My Father Tells Me My Great-Grandfather Was in the KKK.” He uses befitting simile to exhibit this theme with lines like, “those sins     in me     like sod carries the soil it was cut from.” In poems such as, “Images of Kurt Cobain’s Shotgun Released,” Fargason considers his own mental health and possible suicide. The collection becomes further complicated by abundant references to Christianity, and brings to our attention the hypocrisy and pain that can arise in toxic environments that hide behind religion.

In “Watching My Father Pray over the Lord’s Supper,” Fargason recalls a time when he “couldn’t have been more than ten.” The mood is set with help from “the awful red carpet below, not even the right shade of blood,” and a boy trying desperately to emulate the righteousness of his father, “head still bowed like his.” The poem’s silence feels broken when it’s revealed:

I once knew. Even then I thought I could have
overpowered him in that moment,
I could killed him for all the times,

I thought he was going to kill me,
like the time . . .

The disruption of such a pious event by this sentiment is unexpected and disturbing, and serves to symbolize so much of the tension in this collection, as does the poem’s ending, where Fargason recognizes:

. . . a sort of terrible
kindness I wanted, but was never

given, not without a sacrifice
that even then I knew I could never give.

And isn’t it painful to realize that someone who should love you without condition doesn’t and will not, no matter what? But isn’t this understanding of inadequacy also a form of personal acceptance? In this way, the poet offers a freedom to those who sympathize with this type of toxic relationship, someone who feels that, regardless of what they do, a parent loves “not me     but the version of me     I could be
which is to say     not me.”

In Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara, William Fargason has shown what can happen when a parental relationship is strained, but not entirely abandoned, when the limits of one’s mental health are put to the test, and when we begin to find the incredible power that lies in understanding our personal histories. There can be healing. We can each work to forgive ourselves for what we have done, and for what’s been done to us. It requires difficult work to undo trauma, but it is work worth doing, for there are far too many “who didn’t know what they were given until it was too late.”

About the Reviewer

Josh Nicolaisen taught English for twelve years and is currently an MFA candidate at Randolph College. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife, Sara, and their daughters, Grace and Azalea. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee whose poems have recently appeared in So It Goes, Northern New England Review, The Bangalore Review, Backlash, and elsewhere. Find him at his website.