Patrick T. Reardon is the author of fourteen books, including the poetry collections Requiem for David (Silver Birch), Darkness on the Face of the Deep (Kelsay), The Lost Tribes (Grey Book), Let the Baby Sleep (In Case of Emergency) and Salt of the Earth: Doubts and Faith (Kelsay). His memoir in prose poems Puddin’: The Autobiography of a Baby was published by Third World Press with an introduction by Haki Madhubuti. For 32 years, Reardon was a Chicago Tribune reporter. His history book, The Loop: The “L” Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago was published by Southern Illinois University Press.
You reported on urban affairs and politics for the Chicago Tribune for thirty-two years. You also wrote several books during this time. What are the titles of these books and the year of publication?
Patrick T. Reardon
Over the past thirty years, I’ve published eight books in addition to my six poetry collections. Many are rooted in my somewhat free-form religious faith, one of the great wellsprings of my poetry. Others touch on my deep resonance with history and literature.
Four from ACTA, a Chicago-based Catholic publisher, are made up of one-page reflections on everyday life in the context of faith, doubt and mystery. In retrospect, I can see these meditations as prose poems inasmuch as I was aiming to leave the reader with an openness in which to ponder rather than to close a door with a clear-cut answer. These four are:
- Daily Meditations (with Scripture) for Busy Dads (1995)
- Starting Out: Reflections for Young People (2000)
- Love Never Fails: Spiritual Reflections for Dads of All Ages (2006)
- Edith Wharton: Illuminated by ‘The Message’ (2016)
Another book for ACTA is Faith Stripped to Its Essence: A Discordant Pilgrimage through Shusaku Endo’s ‘Silence’ (2016), a religious-literary examination of Endo’s great and troubling novel. This was published to coincide with the release of Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation which turned out to be a masterpiece of a movie but so distressing and depressing that American audiences avoided it like the plague. One other book from ACTA is Catholic and Starting Out: 5 Challenges and 5 Opportunities (2013), a book of advice for young Catholic adults.
My other two non-poetry books have to do with history, a deep source of meaning for me and my writing. One is a short chapbook-like history of my Chicago parish, written to coincide with its centennial: Woven Lives: One hundred years in the story of the St. Gertrude faith family (St. Gertrude, 2012).
The other is a groundbreaking book of Chicago history, The Loop: The “L” Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020). The book, which took eleven years to research and write, delineated, for the first time, the importance of the elevated Loop structure in the way Chicago developed and how it survived the suburban threats of the second half of the twentieth century.
During this time, I also wrote one or more chapters for five books of widely diverse topics:
- Chicago Days: 150 Defining Moments in the Life of a Great City, edited by Stevenson O. Swanson and produced by the Chicago Tribune staff (McGraw-Hill, 1997).
- An Irrepressible Hope: Notes from Chicago Catholics, edited by Claire Bushey (ACTA, 2012)
- Old Comiskey Park: Essays and Memories of the Historic Home of the Chicago White Sox, 1910-1991, edited by Floyd Sullivan (McFarland, 2014).
- The Way of Suffering: Readings for an Enlightened Life, edited by Michael Leach, James T. Keane and Doris Goodnough (Orbis, 2020)
- The Way of Love: Readings for a Meaningful Life, edited by Michael Leach, Doris Goodnough and Maria Angelini (Orbis, 2022).
As for my poetry collections, four of them focus on the difficult childhood that I experienced with my brother David, a year younger, and on our emotionally distant parents, and on David’s decision in 2015 to take his life:
- Requiem for David (2017)
- The Lost Tribes (2022)
- Puddin’: The Autobiography of a Baby, a Memoir in Prose Poems (2022)
- Let the Baby Sleep (2023)
My other two poetry collections are Darkness on the Face of the Deep (2021) and Salt of the Earth: Doubts and Faith (2023).
Beginning in 2017, you have published six books of poetry. When did you first begin to write poetry? Was it during your childhood? Your teen years? College?
Patrick T. Reardon
I didn’t seriously attempt to write poetry until I was an undergrad at St. Louis University (1967-1971). I took a poetry-writing class with the gentle and tender poet John Knoepfle. That’s where I learned how to send out poems to journals, making sure to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope in which to get my rejection or, on occasion, acceptance. I’m not complaining. During the 1970s and early 1980s — when I was starting my career as a newspaper reporter — I had more than sixty poems published here and there. Looking at them now, I see them as somewhat constricted. I desperately wanted to say something with the poems, but there was something that was constraining me from breaking free.
In 1981, I met Cathy Shiel, the woman who, a year and a week later, would marry me. We were off and running, and, a few years later, started a family, raising our son David and daughter Sarah.
After the early 1980s, my family and my newswriting were my focus, and I didn’t write poetry for thirty years. Then, sometime after I was laid off by the Chicago Tribune in 2009, I began contributing small, often humorous poems to a poetry journal published by someone I’d met as a reporter, Melanie Villines at Silver Birch Press. After the suicide of my brother David in November 2015, the poems became more raw and visceral, and I would often offer old family photos to run with them. In the summer of 2016, Melanie said that, if I put together a manuscript of such poems with such photos, she’d publish it. The result was my first poetry collection Requiem for David.
You were the firstborn child in a family of fourteen children. What was your childhood like? Your relationship with your siblings? Your mother and father?
Patrick T. Reardon
Four of my poetry collections — Requiem for David, The Lost Tribes, Puddin’: The Autobiography of a Baby and Let the Baby Sleep — directly deal with all of this, and, for me, they are much more evocative than anything I can write in prose.
Nonetheless, since you asked, here goes: I was an only child of my parents for thirteen months until my brother David was born. My parents had a profound love for each other, leaning heavily and exclusively on each other for emotional support.
In retrospect, I have come to understand that I was an invader in their tight circle of love. They didn’t find me endearing as much as demanding with my requirements for feeding, dressing, etc.
During that first year and through the rest of my childhood, I felt the absence of this nurturing and couldn’t show it. Instead, I had to bury my feelings and emotional needs deep because my parents reacted badly any time I expressed a need or, for that matter, an opinion that wasn’t theirs. They expected me to do everything I could to make their lives easier. For instance, I learned not to ever ask them for help.
This was the pattern they followed as the other thirteen children were born. Each child had to learn not to seek emotional support from our parents and not to ask for help. This would have been an extremely destructive situation except that the older children, starting with me, lavished love and affection on the others. Each new baby was seen by the children as a joy. Our parents never expressed much joy at the beauty and wonder of an infant.
We were trained to see them as the best parents in the world who had so much to do to take care of so many children that it was something like a sin to bother them. However, this was the way it was for me when I was the only baby, so it wasn’t a function of the number of kids.
One example of how we were trained, an incident that I mention more than once in the poetry — David was about 11 and had gone downtown with friends. They ditched him, but he had a quarter and got on the el to come home, only to realize he was on the wrong el. He got off, walked back downtown under the el, and then walked the seven miles under the westbound el to our home in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. It never dawned on him to ask anyone for help, certainly not to find a way to call home for help.
A final note: There are a good number of my siblings who disagree vehemently with me about this, especially the younger ones.
You were a year old when David was born. Most of the poetry books that you have written since 2017 are about David, who took his own life at the age of sixty-four. Describe your poetic journey during the two years between his death in 2015 and the publication of Requiem for David in 2017.
Patrick T. Reardon
I think of those four books as being about me and, in an important but secondary way, about David. Let me explain.
David’s suicide — which was shocking but not completely surprising since he had been angry and troubled all his life — led me to return to psychotherapy. I had spent much of the 1990s in therapy and had gotten many insights into how arid my relationship was with my parents.
I was emotionally jolted when David took his life. In my return to therapy, I began searching for a better understanding of what my childhood and David’s childhood had been like — of how we had been fashioned and shaped by our parents. I was angry with our parents for what they had done to keep David unhappy and feeling unworthy for his entire life. I knew those feelings because I had them as well although I had been able to escape their full destructiveness.
In therapy, I went searching through my feelings and through old family photographs to figure out what it was like for me as the child of my parents — especially when I was an only child — and for David as well. This process was intertwined tightly with the poetry I started writing. The therapy sessions would spark poetry, and the poetry would provide gist for the therapy sessions.
The Puddin’ book was written in the spring of 2016 on brown napkins at the Einstein Bros. Bagel restaurant where I would go for breakfast after each of my twice-a-week therapy sessions. It began simply as an exercise to help me imagine, envision, feel what it was like for me as a baby. All of the 101 one-page installments were written within a month or so, and it took me seven years before I could get it published.
Later in 2016 is when Melanie Villines at Silver Birch Press offered to publish a book of poems and photographs of my childhood. I wrote that book, Requiem for David, over a one-month period in the fall.
Requiem for David is composed of three sections: “Requiem for David,” “De Profundis,” and “A Canticle for Pat.” What do each of the sections mean in the context of the book?
Patrick T. Reardon
After David killed himself, I was in touch with deep, raw, visceral emotions. These had to do with how I was raised, how he was raised and what happened to the two of us, as well as, to a lesser extent, to our siblings.
The first section of the book, “Requiem for David,” is comprised of poems about David and me, often linked to photographs of the two of us. Stuart Dybek called my book “a cri de coeur,” a cry from the heart, and that cry, I think, is loudest in this first section.
The second section, “De Profundis,” is focused on David himself while the third section, “A Canticle for Pat,” looks more directly at me and includes some poems that are less infused with pain.
In the Catholic faith, a requiem mass is a mass for the dead. I titled the book Requiem for David because it was a kind of a mass for him. At any funeral, the service involves remembering the dead person, but it also involves remembering your own relationship with the person and meditating on your own life and your own eventual death. That’s how the three sections work, for me.
The mood of Requiem for David seems to be set in the second stanza of the poem “1951 . . . abandon”: “I should have hugged David and consoled him. I / should be in the moment his big brother instead / of running away. I am gone, even as I stand there / and even as David cries with loud abandon.” Which of the poems in this volume describe David’s relationship with your parents? Why is this perception important?
Patrick T. Reardon
This poem “1951…abandon” and the photograph with it of David, about 18 months, and me, about two and a half, in a crib together, may be the best summary of the two different approaches that David and I took toward our parents.
In this photo, I have what I call my thousand-mile stare. This stare shows up in photo after photo from my babyhood and early childhood. It’s the same sort of gaze that battle-scarred soldiers often exhibit. Essentially, I’m in the room, in that crib, but, emotionally, mentally, I’m far away, in a safer place, in a less painful place. This ability to be present and not present at the same time was one of the ways that I survived my childhood with less damage than I might have suffered. I basically had decided that our parents weren’t going to give me the nurturing I needed so I stopped looking for it from them.
David, on the other hand, kept going to them for the help and support they wouldn’t give. In this photo, he’s screaming to high heaven as if they will answer him. They never did. Throughout his life, he kept looking to them for approval but never got it.
Also, as the poem asks in the opening line: “Why did they take this photograph?” It’s astonishing to me that there are maybe forty photographs of me as a baby, and I’m only smiling in one — the one that was taken by a professional photographer. Over and over again, they would take a photo of me, and the expression on my face is pained and frowning. The same is true for photos of David and me in those early years.
Similarly, the poem before it, the first in the collection, “1951…foreign,” is key to understand how it felt for David and me. We were “foreign rhythms” to our mother. This woman who needed to feel in control of her world was threatened by us. “She/could not/abide the/chaos we/were.” That’s what she felt. “We/only felt lost.”
The third section of Requiem for David is the canticle to you, the poet. Two poems stand out in this canticle: “Mother” and “Father.” What do these two poems mean to you? What do they say about your childhood? About David’s relationship with your parents?
Patrick T. Reardon
It’s been seven years since I wrote those two poems, and it’s been something like 700 sessions of therapy, and I have learned a great deal about myself and my babyhood and about my parents. Nonetheless, these two poems capture the core of my relationship with my parents.
My father not only got no joy from me, he also did not like me or, as far as I could tell, any of my brothers. It’s clear that he liked our sisters better, but I don’t have a sense that he was emotionally available in any real way to any of the kids.
My mother liked to brag about my stories in the Chicago Tribune, often on the front page, but she didn’t read them. “You got your talent from me,” she said many times.
There was much in the way that she and her husband trained me that I had to unlearn as an adult. I’m still unlearning it. For instance, as I say in the poem, she “nitpicked the ballet dancers on/TV, peering close, looking always/for the flaw.” That’s how she looked at me and at David and our siblings. We were in constant fear that she would point out a flaw in us. And we were taught to look for — to expect — flaws in any person or situation outside the family.
Somehow, I found a way to get past that in the outside world although it was a handicap to be afraid to make a mistake. It was also a great loss to approach art and life in general looking for mistakes rather than looking for wonder and beauty.
In three of the four books of poetry published in 2017, 2022, and 2023 that I refer to in this interview, David is a motif as if he is following the poet, not letting him go, or is it that you will not let go of him?
Patrick T. Reardon
A key poem, for me, is “Lament” in the book Let the Baby Sleep.
That book is made up of poems that were, for the most part, written in the period of 2017-19. Then, I tried for three years to find someone to publish the manuscript before the Australian publisher In Case of Emergency agreed to do so this year.
“Lament” has the lines: “I am given flyers for move-/on loss lectures I do not/want to attend. I’ll stay/here where my brother is/half alive still.”
I deal with this in several other poems in that book, including “Against Consolation” and “Finding Pain.” People want to know if, in writing so many poems that deal with David, I’m finding peace.
I’m not looking for peace. I’m wanting to feel all of life — all of my share of joy and pain, all of my share of beauty and darkness.
David keeps coming into my poems because his suicide was the most visceral event in my life. He keeps coming back because I love him and want to continue to think about him, and how can I think of him without also thinking of his death? He keeps coming back because he shared with me a difficult childhood and a difficult relationship with our parents and he is woven tightly into those experiences of mine. He keeps coming back because so many others in my family want to turn their backs on him and make him into a caricature of himself. He keeps coming back because I remember him as a sweet boy, and now the poor guy is gone and he requires remembering — he deserves remembering. He keeps coming back because his suicide was a crime not of his making — or, at least, not only of his making.
The Lost Tribes was published in 2022 as a poetic chapbook of twenty-seven pages in seven sections. Dense in theme and mournful in mood, the search for the lost tribes is a continuing subject. Describe what or who these lost tribes are and explain how or why your family of fourteen children are intrinsic to the meaning of these lost tribes.
Patrick T. Reardon
I think the best way to think of this is this way: David and I had painful childhoods and carried that pain into our adulthoods. But we aren’t alone. Everyone who has ever lived has had to live with pain, some much worse than ours, others maybe not as bad, but who can say?
For me, David and I are representatives of every other human being who has lived and will live. Life is difficult and burdensome and sorrowful while also being joyful and fulfilling and rich.
We live in a nation and an era in which the mass advertising and the social media and the mass media send a message that each person is expected to live a happy, comfortable life. But it’s impossible to live any sort of life without having pain and confusion and discomfort. So, the sense I have is that everyone is walking around feeling they aren’t living the life they’re supposed to live while everyone else seems to be living that life, having a great time — just look at social media.
People aren’t, in my opinion, living lives “of quiet desperation” as Thoreau said. I think that each human is courageous in enduring — in keeping on with the business of breathing — even though it involves pain and sorrow and darkness.
So, the lost tribes. They are each and every one of us, as individuals, as groups.
The first, third and seventh (last) sections are about all people. The third section begins, “We are lost/in Viagra’d beds…” The seventh last section starts, “You and I lose the race.” The “you” is every other human being who has ever lived. The “we” is me and all other humans.
Life isn’t about winning. That’s a given since we are born to die. But holding your head up in the face of the difficulties of life — that is braveness and a kind of triumph. That is why, at the end of the first section, “I found the lost tribes/in America,/and they told me to leave them alone.” The sense there is: Don’t bother me. I’m doing what I can to live this life.
The second, fourth and sixth sections are about David, and the fifth section is about me. We are in these sections, as I mentioned above, representatives of all people in facing what we face.
The Lost Tribes was published seven years after David took his life with a gun. Even in Let the Baby Sleep, your most recent book (2023), David is a powerful presence. In the poem “The bliss of his oblivion,” one stanza reflects the poet’s relationship with David: “I found the lost tribes / after David’s suicide, / before his First Communion, / during his betrayal, / under his sign at the end of the rainbow.” Is it true that you, the poet, couldn’t let go of him, as he appears in many of the poems in this 2023 volume, or is it true that Let the Baby Sleep allowed you to let him go?
Patrick T. Reardon
I don’t want to let go of David. I feel a strong connection to him, and I don’t want to lose him. In a similar although more distant way, I feel a strong connection with every other human being, and I want to remain in touch with that feeling and those connections.
Let the Baby Sleep was completed in 2020, and David hasn’t played as big a role in the poetry I’ve written since then. It’s not that I’m forgetting him, but he’s being woven into other situations. All of my poetry has been written with a sense of connection among all people, such as my poems “Communion of saints” and “Angels are out tonight.”
Four of my poetry books have turned a strong spotlight on David and me and my family. Yet, they need to be seen in context. At its heart, my poetry has to do with the connection of all human beings to each other, and that’s the context in which my books about David, me and my family reside. David, me and my family are representatives of humanity. Our experiences are very personal, and, yet, they are also universal. That’s why they touch people.
The year before Let the Baby Sleep was published, you wrote Puddin’, the Autobiography of a Baby: A Memoir in Prose Poems. Some readers consider Puddin’ the first of its kind of prose poems, but your reason for writing Puddin’ lies in your journey to understand you and your siblings’ relationship with your parents—“acolytes at the altar.” Studying forty black-and-white photos of your early childhood gave you the insight to write the book. Allow us to see this journey: Why Puddin’ is called the first such book; how you found your way to write the book; what it means to you in this family of fourteen children; how you relate to it now.
Patrick T. Reardon
I’ve pretty much explained above how I came to write this book. What I was struck by after the book was published was how it is such a mix of many emotions. The baby, me, feels isolated and confused, and he only gets the nurturing he needs from Aunt.
Nonetheless, he finds a way to enrich his life through deep curiosity and a strong effort to start to understand his world, looking how lines connect to each other. There is, it seems to me, an amazing resilience to that little boy that touches me deeply.
It’s that resilience that many readers mention when they talk about how much they enjoyed the book.
Of the six poetry books you have written since 2017, which was the most difficult to write? Why? The titles of the books in order of publication are as follows: Requiem for David; Darkness of the Face of the Deep; Puddin’; The Lost Tribes; Let the Baby Sleep; and Salt of the Earth: Doubts and Faith.
Patrick T. Reardon
Each of the books involves taking poems I’d already written and putting them together in some order that made sense. The “writing” of the book was a way of taking a mess of many poems and giving that mess form. What I mean to say is that it was satisfying and fulfilling.
The writing of individual poems was much more fraught. Some of those that ended up in Requiem and in Let the Baby Sleep were among the most raw and painful to write. At the same time, the act of taking my feelings and giving them form in words and lines and stanzas helped me to embrace the rawness and pain. In other words, I wasn’t just suffering, but I was finding a connection with the rawness and pain and putting it on paper with the idea of sharing it with a future reader.
The writing was painful, but less painful than not writing.
A renowned publisher wants to write your memoir. How will you begin?
Patrick T. Reardon
The first poetry I heard was in church.