Dead Dad Jokes
By Ollie Schminkey
Book Review by Camille Germain
Right off from the start Ollie Schminkey pulls no punches. Everything is out in the open with the book title Dead Dad Jokes, and yet each line punches you in the gut a little harder than the last. Ollie Schminkey knows how to play with words in a way that makes you gasp, widen your eyes, and then immediately dig back into the poetry. For those who have lost a father I can start to imagine how hard this book hits home. For those of us who haven't, it makes us feel deeply. It makes us agonize in each new metaphor.
Dead Dad Jokes is a book of poetry that digs in and shows us how truly complex the grief of a parent dying can be. It is more than just losing a parent; it is caring for them while they die. It is dealing with the past of their addictions and behaviors. It is about family dynamics and relationships. It is about identity. This book has hints of Ollie Schminkey’s personal experiences embedded where we least expect it. We get a few glimpses of their sexuality and gender identity with lines such as:
“instead, my partner pets my hair gently,
like there’s nothing in this world
that can’t be fixed by petting my hair gently.
we are queer, which means
we have always known how to keep loving
even while surrounded by death.”
“i write my dead name in my father’s obituary.
i don’t even think about it.
my dead name doesn’t feel like such a dead name
while standing next to my dad’s corpse.”
When I read this book, I read it fast. Each line carries you like a buoy bouncing with every incoming wave. Naturally, it was both a difficult and an easy read. The language and imagery is so well-crafted that the reader almost forgets they aren’t living this person’s life; but then they start to feel the sting of their experiences. Ollie Schminkey brings their experiences to life in the smallest ways:
“his death is the threshold, and you are standing on a faded
welcome mat, peering through the doorway
into someone else’s house.”
The pace of this book is steady and natural. There is nothing forced about it, which with such a difficult subject seems challenging. Vulnerability has been kind to Ollie Schminkey. It allowed us to feel the truth in each line. This is a writer who has owned their voice and knows how to craft an image perfectly.
This book captures the pain of caring for a man who was absent and drunk while alive, but then while dying became soft and sober. Schminkey writes about their pain in wishing their father was a different father and now that he is, he is dying. This book goes into the struggle of caring for a weak body and seeing it in its most vulnerable; it even discusses seeing their dad’s penis. It’s something that isn’t normally considered when hearing/reading about someone caring for their dying parents. Seeing parts of them you never want to see. But something that is real and uncomfortable. Schminkey takes us there and keeps going. The uncomfortable is the truth. It is important.
Dead Dad Jokes is a book I highly recommend. It demolishes barriers. It gives an unexpected and much needed voice to grief. Ollie Schminkey is a writer who is fierce and honest. This is a needed story that changes the narrative of trauma, family, and pain.