‘In Two Minds’: Callie Siskel Reflects on the Ghost of Her Famous Father

Everything assumes the role of father and husband except the father and husband.

By J. Howard Rosier at Poetry Foundation: The legacy of the deceased may truncate one’s growth, every feeling or decision checked against what ______ would’ve done. Two Minds (W.W. Norton, 2024), Callie Siskel’s panicked and sorrowful debut, addresses this stasis in inventive and often startling ways. The book presents itself as a fork in the road, with the poet indecisive as to whether she can move on from the loss of her father, the film critic Gene Siskel. It’s also an amalgam, with the poet’s mind overlaying the deceased’s mind like tracing paper, faintly sketching its contours to learn how to live a dignified life. Remembrance is comforting but worn like an ankle monitor: the reality of its confinement affects Siskel’s movement and thus all of her relationships, as depicted in “Intention to Return”:

In a past life  I was not defined by his death.
…                     I was not re-routed like a plane through Charlotte.
…                     I was part of a “nuclear family,” the phrasing
                         of which appears first in 1924 as “the nuclear family
…                     I did not have a complex.
…                     I smiled for the camera.
…                     Love accumulated like debt—mindless, habit-forming.
…                     Similes were balanced equations.
…                     I had my father’s face, not “you have your father’s face.”

Callie Siskel

This poem is arguably the book’s best and indicative of how Two Minds works. Its lines are shrouded in mourning—not only for the deceased, but for the person Siskel was before her father died. Notably, the deceased is rendered not as a flesh-and-blood person but as an essence wafting through the text. Siskel keeps her father at a safe distance; indeed, the closest the poet allows herself to get when referencing him is “my father.” He is “in synagogue, praying // for himself inside his navy suit” (“Prophecy in Blue”). In the family’s home, he beckons Siskel to “Come in, come in”—the physical fact of his existence thinned out in Siskel’s memory so she has to reassure herself that “Yes he was here” (“Overwinter”). We are rarely allowed to see anything beyond the shapes that Siskel curates to sketch out a father, which in turn amplify the details that feel exclusive to her experience—the reflection in brass elevator doors, for example, which she remembers “more easily than his body next to [hers]” (“Mirror Image”), or the forlorn rush of memory in “When I Return to Your Room”:

More here.