Review: Puddin’: The Autobiography of a Baby, A Memoir in Prose Poems, by Patrick T. Reardon
Puddin’ is a slim volume, small enough to tuck in a back pocket or a small purse. That size may suggest a good way to read this “memoir in prose poems” by Chicago author Patrick T. Reardon. Standing on an El platform, sitting on a park bench, waiting for a friend, reading a few poems at a time, you’ll become accustomed to Reardon’s simple, but ultimately profound, use of language to tell his family story.
The diary-like memoir begins on January 3, 1950:
“She is gone. I wish I knew why she goes. She was not glad I shit. She made that face. Her hands were rough as she changed me…” And on January 6, “He is here. He keeps his space… He does not like to look at me…” But on January 10, “Aunt’s eyes smile. Her voice smiles. Her eyes go wide with joy… She hugs me on her….”
Puddin’, told purposefully by Reardon in one-syllable words, is the story of his own first year, from his birth to the birth of his brother David 14 months later. They were the first two of the Reardon family’s 14 children, raised in a Chicago flat by their policeman father and doubtless overworked mother. Because, among other things, that was the era before disposable diapers and before automatic washers were commonplace. I remember watching my mother (who only had two children) scrubbing clothes on a washboard in a laundry sink and hanging them on basement clothes lines in the winter, outside in the backyard in the summer. Multiply that by seven!
Reardon’s afterword is particularly interesting in this case, because the way he explored his memories of early family life through family photo albums gave him insights that he turned into his prose poems. He tells us how he undertook this writing journey to help him understand his relationship with David and how their parents viewed parenthood. Their parents, Reardon notes, were not the “touchy-feely type.” After all, “they were raising fourteen children on a policeman’s salary. Who had time for hugs?”
The book is in a sense a memorial to David, who committed suicide in 2015, after suffering intense pain from the arthritis that wracked his body—and his medication stopped working. Reardon also wrote Requiem for David: Poems, published in 2017.
Reardon approaches the story of his parents and family the way you would expect a veteran reporter to do—with research, analysis, and by surfacing emotions and memories from his childhood. He puts the pieces together in the form of short prose poems, none more than a page. Sometimes the poems show baby Patrick’s physical progress.
“I am on the cloth on the rug on my back. I roll, and it scares me. I give a cry or two and stop. I roll to the right a bit. I roll to the left a bit. I roll. I am on my front. I hold up my head and look. She comes in the room and puts me back on my back.”
Reardon’s research meant spending a great deal of time with old family photos—photos taken of David and Patrick during the first few years of their lives. One thing he notes: “… David and I are never shown smiling.” And he sees an awkwardness in the way his parents hold their children—not tenderly close to their bodies, but away from their bodies, “as if I had a bad smell.” His smiling Aunt Mary, on the other hand, “would clasp me close to her body, and often close to her face.” Aunt Mary gave him the nickname Puddin’.
The book includes a foreword by poet and publisher Haki Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press. He notes the creative energy that Reardon puts into reimagining a baby’s first year. “The mere thought of writing as one’s infant self is not only a first in poetry, most probably a first in book form.”
I don’t know of another autobiography of a baby, but I’m very fond of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, a short novel told by a fetus in utero. It’s actually an unborn Hamlet, listening while his mother Trudy and her lover Claude hatch a plot to get rid of her inconvenient husband. Here’s how Nutshell begins:
“So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean… That was in my careless youth… Now, I listen, make mental notes and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me.”
There’s no deadly intent in Puddin’. It’s a sweetly melancholy way for a poet to remember his family and anticipate life with his brother.
The final poem in Puddin’ is dated January 28, 1951: “I wake. In the dark, in this room, in the new crib next to mine is the new child. His name is David.”
Reardon was an urban affairs reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune for 33 years, until 2009. He has published a dozen books, including the recent The Loop: The “L” Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago. He also has his own experience with babies, since he and his wife Cathy have two children and three grandchildren. The youngest is Noah Joseph Reardon, born in January.
Puddin’: The Autobiography of a Baby , a Memoir in Prose Poems, is available from the publisher, Third World Press, and from booksellers.
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