Not Even This by Jack Underwood review – fatherhood, philosophy and fear

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: fotostorm/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: fotostorm/Getty Images

About three years ago, the poet Jack Underwood became a father for the first time. The responsibility weighed heavily: he recalls “feeling that there should have been more paperwork. We signed a form or two and then they just sort of let us take you away. A human child.” A few months later, he started having panic attacks – his love for his daughter had rendered him “utterly fucked with worry”. He decided to write about it, which helped: “my breathing regulated, my thoughts took shape, giving direction to my feelings; finding my thinking voice was like opening an enormous valve.” The resulting book is a thoughtful essay-memoir on parenthood, in which Underwood recounts how he learned to manage his angst – “to live within the fear” – by embracing uncertainty.

Underwood’s dread gave way to a sanguine sense of purpose and self-sacrifice

Not Even This takes its title from the ancient philosopher Carneades of Cyrene, who remarked that “Nothing can be known; not even this.” It is a hybrid work, alternating between two distinct modes of writing: an epistolary memoir in the second person, addressed to the author’s daughter; and a freewheeling meditation on the theme of uncertainty, touching on assorted matters of quantum physics, neuroscience, etymology, history, economics and technology. These include, among other things, the disagreement between Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson as to whether time exists independently of human beings; the biomedical ethics of transhumanism; the prospect of the technological singularity, when digital superintelligence will transcend the human intellect; the way time seems to slow down when we’re doing something interesting; the anomalousness of wave-particles; the reality behind the myth of Joan of Arc.

The gist? Knowledge is inherently “tenuous, mutable … renegotiable, political and socialised”, and the craving for certainty is at the root of many societal ills. The financial system, for example, is wedded to certain rigid orthodoxies that are periodically disproved, with disastrous consequences: “When we mistake the power of finance for certainty in its workings, then we only hand it more power, more confidence, and so permit it to act less and less reasonably.” Fallibility is integral to human progress, so it’s best to go with the flow: “a parent has little choice but to learn to trust a child to become themselves, and … such trust is a kind of love”.

The idea of trust also informs his approach to creative writing. Underwood, whose first poetry collection, Happiness, was published by Faber in 2015, sees poetry as a form of “dissonant, unruly, uncertain knowledge”, in which language is “provisional, equivocal, interpretable”. The process of composition is built on two-way trust: trusting the reader to get it, and trusting yourself, as a writer, to make yourself understood. Unlike many poets, Underwood doesn’t save multiple drafts of his poems, but restricts himself to a single document – “and if I ruin it … well, never mind … Maybe I need the fear, the slight risk, to force myself to take responsibility for the poem in my care … I have to move forwards … in one vulnerable, resolute trajectory.”

Underwood rejects the platitudinous notion that having kids turns you into a better person – “If anything parenthood has made us more selfish, more insular, always directing our heart’s resources inwards.” But he is, by his own account, a sentimental sort (“I find old batteries funereal. I thank cash machines and postboxes”), and this is what gives this book its charm. He reminisces fondly about his daughter’s first unaided steps, and sympathetically recalls how, during the first few months of her life, she would become extremely unsettled – a “‘neurotic, crotchety recluse” – whenever he had guests round: “A roomful of strangers bursting out laughing must have been a grotesque, hyperreal tableau of teeth and gums.” He believes silliness is intrinsic to intimacy, and encourages her to “feast, you daft little cherub. There is practically nothing in life better than being incredibly silly.” Elsewhere, overcome with love, he gushes endearments: “My bag of fish. My cuddling gammon. Look at you go! Jesus Christ. Let me count the ways.”

Related: The best books for frazzled parents – and their children

This is Underwood’s first book of nonfiction prose and, like most debuts, it has its flaws. The central argument is somewhat woolly – almost any subject might be obliquely tethered to “uncertainty” – and Underwood’s rhapsodic lyricism sails dangerously close to feyness at times. But he is a lucid and engaging companion. The voice that comes through in these pages is immensely likable – humble, conscientious and emotionally intelligent. The book’s format – flitting back and forth between disquisition and memoir every few pages – serves the reader well: the essayistic meanderings are kept in check, and the autobiographical candour doesn’t cloy.

A number of recent books on fatherhood have examined the subject through the prism of masculinity. These include Charlie Gilmour’s Featherhood (2020), Caleb Klaces’ Fatherhood (2019), Toby Litt’s Wrestliana (2018), Howard Cunnell’s Fathers and Sons (2017) and William Giraldi’s The Hero’s Body (2017). Though Not Even This also touches questions of gender, the scope of its existential inquiry is broader: Underwood’s overarching theme is fear – and fear, as he rightly points out, is what underpins the less savoury aspects of conventional masculinity. For all his fretfulness, this is an upbeat book. Underwood’s dread gave way to a sanguine sense of purpose and self-sacrifice: “I’ve experienced a shift in my personhood,” he writes, “and acquired this sense of my body as happy collateral, a buffer of meat. I’m not the important one in my life any more.”

  • Not Even This: Poetry, Parenthood & Living Uncertainly by Jack Underwood is published by Corsair (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.