Patricia lockwood

This article is a preview from the Winter 2017 edition of New Humanist.

‘‘Never be embarrassed.” That is the “life-­motto” of the US poet Patricia Lockwood (right), and she must have invoked it hundreds of times as she spent the past decade exposing her inner life to the poetry-reading public on the blogosphere, in Twitter-space, in little magazines, and more recently in conventional slim volumes.

Even if you don’t know much about poetry you have probably heard about her poem “Rape Joke”, which slammed through the internet in 2013, knocking WH ­Auden’s dictum that “poetry makes nothing happen” out for the count. “The rape joke is that you were facedown,” Lockwood wrote; “the rape joke is that come on, you should have seen it coming.” Is the rape joke funny? Of course it is, and no, of course not: the clue is in the name.

Around the middle of “Rape Joke” you get a glimpse of Lockwood’s family background: “the rape joke is that when you told your father, he made the sign of the cross over you and said, ‘I absolve you of your sins’… so completely sweet.” Is that supposed to be funny too? Is her dad another joke? Is he really a Catholic priest? It turns out that he is, as we learn in hyperreal detail in a fleet, fresh, frank memoir, called Priestdaddy.

Lockwood’s father is not the sort to worry about ­being embarrassed. He looks as if he “lived his whole life on meat” and has always felt wholly at home in the ­American Midwest. Back in the 1960s he was a “smirking teenage ­atheist, whose only religion was rock and roll, tight jeans, and making rude comments to authority ­figures.” Then he fell for a cherubic Irish-American girl with a ­church-going habit that struck him as “damn hilarious”. She married him and – “not wishing to let Ireland down” – gave him babies as if there was no tomorrow.

Meanwhile, he joined the navy, but instead of seeing the sea he spent months underwater in a nuclear submarine, with nothing to do in his spare time except watch screenings of The Exorcist – which, by the way, he believes to be true: “absolutely true, it happened right here in St Louis, and it will one day happen again.” So, there he was, cooped up with a handful of “men in sailor suits getting the bejesus scared out of them” when “the bejesus flew into him like a dart into bull’s eye”, producing what he called “the deepest conversion on record”.

“We like a nice way of saying things,” Lockwood writes. They honed their skills in a trailer in Indiana while he mugged up on theology and became a Lutheran minister. Two years later he switched to Rome. (“He was tired of grape juice ... he wanted wine.”) Obviously there was a problem: “Catholic priests, by definition, are not allowed to be married,” but he got a waiver from Cardinal Ratzinger and “snuck past the definition while the dictionary was sleeping”. Following a few rituals, he stood up in church resplendent in lamb-white robes. “After it was all over, ­everyone had to call him Father, but I called him that ­anyway, so it made no difference to me.”

It did though, and we start to learn how Lockwood grew accustomed to the big man who, between sacraments, wanders the house in exiguous underpants, fondling guns, abusing top-of-the-range guitars, denouncing half the human race as feminazis, ­eating pickles straight from the jar, drinking cream liqueurs and ­following conservative shock jocks with gleeful howls of “Hoooo-eee”.

His wife tidies up after him, wearing an “I-told-you-so face” and musing that “you can’t have fun if you know that somewhere in the world, someone is being disgusting”. But she’s nobody’s fool, and she likes a drink or two, relaxing at last into her “thinking-of-babies smile”. Her unwonted poet-daughter loves her through it all: “It is sweet, sometimes, to hear clichés after long days of trying to say something new.”

Then there are the seminarians. “I trace my mode of ­interaction with all men back to early encounters with seminarians,” Lockwood says: pink specimens, born at the age of 65, who have been sent to live with the Lockwoods as a boot-camp for priesthood. Little Patricia plays her part, preparing them for their inkblot test for SSA (­same-­sex ­attraction) and furnishing them with lewd ­information that will stand them in good stead when they start hearing confessions.

She also dispenses advice on choosing their chalice for ordination: “a phallic cup studded with suggestive pearl droplets” will do nicely, she thinks, but Father Lockwood one-ups them by musing on his own goblet, “inlaid with fine amethysts of the first water” and “rescued from a hoard of Nazi treasure”. The seminarians steeple their hands and tell her a few things she ought to know, for example that “vagina” really means scabbard, and that women who sleep with priests are “chalice chippers”, but most of this, she says, is “so far out of my area of sexual expertise that it’s not even funny”.

Inevitably, Lockwood is steeped in religion. “It was always my religion to believe anything anyone told me,” she explains, and she remembers a pro-life demonstration where her father and a nun get themselves arrested for laying siege to a clinic. “Because”, her mother says, “these people kill babies.” “Which people?” Feminists in baggy shirts, for the most part. No one can tell her why the police don’t lock ’em up, and Lockwood does her best to shield her baby brother. “There are downsides to believing ­everything that everyone tells you”, she says, “but I had not discovered this yet.”

Has Lockwood put her religious upbringing behind her? It’s hard to say. She writes about a “rebellious period” in her teens (“sometimes I said the ass-word kind of loudly”) and she does not seem to have grown out of it. She no longer has a will to believe, but “the shapes of the stories remain” and she cannot harden her heart against the rituals of the Church: “Memories of religion reside mostly in the body,” she writes, and – rather like “sport that you played during childhood” – they will not let you go. “Just a small push,” she says, “and I would fall back into the old faith; I would believe all of it again.”

For my money, Priestdaddy contains more insights into religion than a library stuffed with theology and philosophy-of-religion. Ask anyone about their attitudes to belief and unbelief and it’s a safe bet that, rather than discussing the existence of God or the problem of evil, they will soon be telling you about their childhood.

Some of us are brought up religious, some not so much, but, either way, we will end up trying to figure out what it meant – a process that has more to do with the psycho­pathology of family life than the logic of religious doctrine. This must be one of the funniest memoirs ever written; but then again, not so funny after all.

“Priestdaddy: A Memoir” is published by Allen Lane