Thursday, April 25, 2013

NPM: Because We're Men

Photo by Jason Clarke

A few months ago, my friend James texted me a quote from John Steinbeck's East of Eden:

Tom wrote secret poetry, and in those days it was only sensible to keep it secret. The poets were pale emasculates, and Western men held them in contempt. Poetry was a symptom of weakness, of degeneracy and decay. To read it was to court catcalls. To write it was to suspected and ostracized. Poetry was a secret vice, and properly so.

We had a short discussion about it, and one of the things that came up was a confession that when I do write poetry, I only ever show it to my female friends. I know it's silly, but I'm a product of my culture, and my culture implicitly says (1) that poetry is an unmanly thing, and (2) men don't express tenderness or vulnerability to other men (not without the ridiculous "no homo" qualifier) -- and a poem, if it's sincere, must necessarily put the poet on naked display, all defenses lowered and all pretense abandoned, and masculinity itself is often a defense and a pretense. I remember getting shoved around the middle school locker room for this sort of thing -- feelings are for faggots, after all.

I hope to get over it someday.

Anyway: today's poem, lovingly transcribed from the anthology Rebel Angels, is partially about the difficulties such values impose upon their subjects.

("Because We're Men" is also a goofy song from The Amazing World of Gumball, but perhaps you shouldn't think about it as you read the piece.)

For J.W.
Rafael Campo (1964 - )

I know exactly what I want to say,
Except we're men. Except it's poetry,
And poetry is too precise. You know
That when we met on Robert's porch, I knew.
My paper plate seemed suddenly too small;

I stepped on a potato chip. I watched
The ordinary spectacle of birds
Become magnificent until the sky,
Which was an ordinary sky, was blue
And comforting across my face. At least

I thought I knew. I thought I'd seen your face
In poetry, in shapeless clouds, in ice
Like staring deeply into frozen lakes.
I thought I'd heard your voice inside my chest,
And it was comforting, magnificent,

Like poetry but more precise. I knew,
Or thought I knew, exactly how I felt.
About the insects fizzing in the lawn.
About the stupid, ordinary birds,
About the poetry of Robert Frost,

Fragility and paper plates. I look at you.
Because we're men, and frozen hard as ice
So hard from muscles spreading out our chests
I want to comfort you, and say it all.
Except my poetry is imprecise.

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