Shelby Stephenson reviews Lester Graves Lennon’s book My Father was a Poet


Translating his father’s Braille, Lester Graves Lennon’s My Father Was a Poet (CW Books, Cincinnati, Ohio) questions who we are as human beings who want to make a difference in a world permanent with bliss and pain. Lennon’s gutsy poems turn family history and color-line into words natural as wind and sun, rain and earth around his father’s grave in Whiteville, North Carolina.

My Father’s Father’s Children

My father’s father, Mack, a rough shrewd son

of freed field slaves, owned a tobacco farm,

thirty years after slavery in Whiteville,

North Carolina. His wife, Aradella,

worked home and soil, gave birth to thirteen children:

D’Ossey, the first born who died at Shaw;

Ben, Quentin, Roscoe – the three who stayed and farmed;

Eva, the youngest all called Tiny Bee;

Bessie, Naomi, Minnie, Lillian,

the four whose high cheek bones and red brown skin

best showed their mother’s mother’s Cherokee

birth; Acy, at four hundred pounds the largest

and closest to my father; Shady Macon,

the youngest boy haunted by crying spells;

Early the first through college; and my father.

Nine shared their field hand grit to earn degrees.

Seven had striking blue-rimmed eyes, the seven

who lost their sight. My father lost his last.

Almost half a century after the Emancipation Proclamation these details form for the grandson, Lester Graves Lennon, the quest to find his father – the real subject of these poems. Consider Mack, the wife, Aradella, the thirteen children, the names cited like notes in echoes of what history was like in the South in the first part of the twentieth century. The roll call of names settles to say “Cherokee,” that past current today, identity shaping us to say Yes we understand the “crying spells,” the conjuring reality of the lack of doctors in the Whiteville of the times. That was the case everywhere in the rural South.

Early went to college: “and my father.” What personal words to bring singing on to the serious search for the father. A line worth repeating, just to hear it again: “Nine shared their field hand grit to earn degrees.” That sentence by itself is a poem. The eyes of seven, “blue-rimmed,” eventually could not see. A little over half of Lester Graves Lennon’s “father’s father’s children” lost their sight. Imagine truths they must have asked, insights others forget to ask for. And the poet’s father was “the last.” The whole poem’s force, detail, the power and wonder, the necessary calling to Lester Graves Lennon to find his father and try to come to terms with childhood, especially, now, the child inside himself who feels his way to become Lester Graves Lennon, finding out for sure that his father was a poet.

It is hard to say anything about the title poem without disturbing or misinterpreting lives lived and formed out of what we do to each other. The poem praises the necessity to write, to try to get things straight so that we may go on and be counted, wake up awake and give ourselves to morning.

“My Father Was a Poet”

I did not know my father was a poet

who wrote in Braille after he lost his sight.

He was a man of secrets.

The usual ones I knew: alcohol

and women. Poetry was his alone.

After his death I found them carefully

packed in the closet of his nursing home.

Page after page of tactile patterns lured

my fingertips. I had them translated,

if that’s the term, from darkness into light.

There were no letters only poetry.

He wrote an ordered formal verse,

Four beats always four beats per line.

It was a powerful uncompromising

Line for a man who did not compromise.

He knew I wrote and never asked to hear.

I read each poem of his, placing the Braille

next to the flattened text. The pair revealed

VERSE Maps of constellations from the star

Atlas a son would follow to find his father.

“Poetry was his alone,” salvaging his life? Just to think: our words shaping us, move away to fall on us here, to be cared for by somebody else, as if living is a translation of things to come, the touching and the closeness of fingertips in patterns a son hears and smells, out of darkness into darkness, the father, gone. Somewhere Hart Crane writes a question and an answer: “What are you, lost within this tideless  spell? You are your father’s father, and the stream . . .”

Poetry maps what letters cannot say. “He knew I wrote and never asked to hear.”


Lester Graves Lennon’s My Father Was a Poet is a serious exploration of family. The book is a hymn to the infinitely transitory, even as the grave of the poet’s father holds its sway in that cemetery in Whiteville, North Carolina.

Lester Graves Lennon is a graduate of the English Department, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is currently Senior Vice President, Public Finance, Head of Western Region, FTN Financial Capital Markets, Los Angeles, California