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Book Review: The Favorite


Seventy-one-year-old Lucinda Watson, the granddaughter of IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, Sr. and the fourth child of six of Thomas J. Watson, Jr. who ran IBM  from 1952-1971, calls her debut collection of poetry The Favorite because, she says, she WAS her father’s favorite,  “the pretty one” of  five daughters. But in the title poem, “The Favorite” she intimates that although she was “the one chosen to travel /on long trips and / to sleep in his room,/ while everyone else stayed home,” the relationship was fraught with fear and unhappiness.  The 24-line free-verse poem segues at line seven into a dark theme that defines many of the poems in this confessional memoir: “Once, my mother dressed me up / like the woman he was sleeping with.” A loaded line that suggests the psychological abuse Watson endured from both parents. And in “Seeing Lake Tahoe” her recollection moves from remembering the brilliance of the “electric blue of the lake and sharp bright harshness of the sun” to seeing in her mind’s eye “My husband’s hand” fondling another woman.” Lurches like this, overt and subtle, inform most of the poetry here. The lines resonate for what they say about Lucinda Watson’s privileged childhood in Greenwich with her dysfunctional family, and her loneliness, even as the page facing the poem “The Favorite” shows a slightly out-of-focus smiling young girl posed in a riding outfit. Elsewhere, Watson writes that she loved horses but knew thatTHEY knew she was afraid of them.  And her lack of connection  to her grandfather who died when she was seven, and her domineering, often cruel father, who died when she was 46.  It’s the last lines of “The Favorite,” however, set in the present, that in their simple, unsentimental declaration give pause: “Each morning I examine the freshness of my face,/ the fading of my footprints,/ the smooth other side of the bed.” Despite what she says was -  and is - restorative embrace by the natural world, Lucinda Watson’s memories of her demanding, critical father and  passive, conservative mother who yielded to his patriarchy, follow her into adulthood where fantasies and loss seem to triumph over assertions of  hard-won inner peace and acceptance of the inevitable. The “somewhat autobiographical” poems, as she calls them, are worth noticing because of what they reveal about the sad personal life of one of the country’s most influential families - a familiar enough “poor little rich girl” theme but one addressed here with barely controlled hostility at times augmented by sardonic humor. Although some poems suggest Watson found fulfillment – a brief bio notes her work as a teacher,  healer,  naturalist guide, storyteller and now “fulltime poet and blogger – none clearly reference or allude to the major tragedy she does write about elsewhere -- the suicide of her estranged daughter in 2017. Overall, the 63 poems collected in The Favorite poems seem more like prose paragraphs than verse, and sometimes are. But their free-form structure suits Watson’s talent for the sudden telling metaphor, as in the opening poem, “Road Trip” about a  “late June day in Connecticut,” where the unease of going with her siblings to visit her grandfather is compressed into an image of “the sticky, shiny plastic seats” of an old car with “cracks that bite us.” For those whose struggles resemble hers, Watson’s poems may prove therapeutic. They certainly seem to have been so for her.  Restoring for her a sense of identity and purpose.  

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.