rattle

Adjusting to the Lights- Poems by Tom C. Hunley

HunleyCov
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By Thaddeus Rutkowski
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In the first poem in this chapbook, the speaker asks for a way into his autistic son’s mind: “a Place Inside Himself / That No One Else Can Ever Enter.” The capitalized words offer an added meaning, because they are part of a name the speaker “gave” to his child. The condition of being separated from others (all others) is part of the son’s identity. But there is a way in. The speaker (who is the poet) says:
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Not even I can go there,
                        But I believe You can go there,
                                    Dear God, please go there.
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Through this higher manner of communication, the son may receive an understanding or protection that his father cannot provide. And protection is needed, because the father cannot “ward off” a wolf that might step “out of the woods.” A higher power, however, can do the job—if the poet’s prayer is answered.
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As if having a developmentally disabled son is not enough for one lifetime, the poet introduces his daughter, who was adopted as a teenager out of foster care, in “What Feels Like Love.” The poem’s title has a couple of meanings; the more obvious one concerns the way some young people interact without thought or propriety. A boy talks the daughter into “photographing herself topless … and putting it on Snapchat.” This behavior, of course, is only what seems to be love, real as it may appear to the daughter. The father, on the other hand, expresses a deep sympathy for his daughter:
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            . . . Be mine because I cry when you cry
Be mine because I fear for you       when you don’t
have the sense to fear for yourself
What feels like a punch in the nuts       is really love
when you love a girl     who doesn’t know
yet      how to love herself
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Here, the plea “Be mine” stands in contrast to the daughter’s attachment to her boyfriend. Her father loves her, too, with a love that goes beyond “what feels like love.” Whether she will respond to her father’s protectiveness or will go with her boyfriend is not stated by the end of the poem.
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The 40-page Adjusting to the Lights, a Rattle Chapbook Prize winner, contains eighteen poems about parenting children who require a very high degree of attention. (Hunley and his wife, Ralaina, have also raised two other children.) Many of the poems cover ordinary occurrences that become adventures. After viewing the movie Elf, for example, the poet’s son “treats every day like Christmas.” Meanwhile, with regard to the same film, the adopted daughter becomes gigantic, like Will Ferrell’s character, who is as large as an adult but acts like a child.
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As things are, the outlook for the poet’s son is not good. In the poem “Optimal Outcomes,” Hunley writes:
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. . Autistic kids become autistic adults,

become mostly unemployed, often become
suicides, rarely become old folks or even
forty-year-olds. They give up on fitting
their worlds into this rigid one the rest
of us inhabit”
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That “outcome” isn’t much (or anything) to look forward to. Here, the poet recognizes (as we all should) our limitations as human beings. What’s left, perhaps, is the possibility that prayers (however they are defined) will be answered. With the Father’s love (beyond a father’s love), “colorful rays of sunshine may peek through the curtains” separating us from our best selves and from each other.
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You can find the book here: Adjusting to the Lights
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Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of seven books, most recently Tricks of Light, a poetry collection. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Thaddeus Rutkowski
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