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In the Company of Men

 

Manthology: Poems on the Male Experience
Edited by Craig Crist-Evans, Roger Weingarten, Kate Fetherston
University Of Iowa Press
200 pages

 

 

Remember Iron John? That book became a cultural phenomenon in 1990, providing a powerful antidote to men’s messy identities and feelings of emptiness. Its mythic initiations and masculine ideals struck a chord with many males who previously, it seems, had been emotionally and spiritually atonal. The author of this successful prose anthem on manhood was Robert Bly, best known as a poet. Go figure!

The poets whose work fills Manthology (University of Iowa Press, 200 pp.), a highly readable anthology edited by Craig Crist-Evans and Roger Weingarten, politely decline Bly’s tom-toms and sweat huts, thank you very much. Although it was published a few years ago, I have found this little collection to reward repeated browsing since then, and it always yields this or that additional poem to be newly appreciated. Call this a “Word in Rewind” or “Review in Retrospect” if you must, but sometimes certain books deserve a second-wave of critical attention or an admiring-if-belated shout out. This is that rare anthology that feels constantly fresh, as if newly released, and its subject for better or worse also feels perennially current, whichever of this week’s y-chromosome crop comes to mind: brooding men’s men (Jon Hamm as Mad Men’s Don Draper) or crooning young boy-men (Justin Bieber), athletic He-men (Albert Pujols, Usain Bolt), complicated pop stars or cult heroes (Adam Lambert, or work-ditching, beer-drinking flight attendant Steven Slater), marital monsters (Mel Gibson) or bad boys young or old (Levi Johnston and Charlie Sheen, always Charlie Sheen).

Like this list of poster boys, the visions of male experience in Manthology are wildly diverse, as befits an anthology volume such as this, but generally the poems tend toward the illumination of the everyday and, within that quotidian setting, revelations about those spaces between male being and male posturing. This sense of dissimulation at the heart of guydom is hardly a new insight. In “Illusions,” Ralph Waldo Emerson describes “men who make themselves felt in the world” as those who know how to use a “certain fate in their constitution.” Yet such men only interest us, Emerson continues, if they can “lift a corner of the curtain,” and reveal a spirit of “poetry and play” usually concealed by their practical, fierce outer selves. So Bonaparte and Caesar must be intellectuals, and sea-captains and railway men should have a gentler side when off duty, “a good-natured admission that there are illusions, and who shall say that he is not their sport?” These poems’ content and concerns will be likewise revealing, or curtain-lifting in Emerson’s terms, to many readers, men and women alike, for whom this collection might have been subtitled, “Poems in Jeans.”

Most of the selections primarily describe those things enjoyed or endured by men—bullies, bar mitzvahs, road trips, jobs, middle age, coronaries, war and its aftermath. Not all of these poems will dazzle readers formally, but the content consistently feels lived through, both the situations themselves and the ways they are reported. Whatever the point of view, the voices that narrate or meditate on these experiences are quick to confess or console or condemn, and to search for meaning in any case. One of the pleasures of reading Manthology straight through is the sheer range of perspectives that emerges, even amid the familiar settings.

Female poets featured here also offer keen insights on males they’ve witnessed, from Elinor Benedict’s graying husband standing beside his father, “both well pleased with / what they see: a little of themselves,” to the awkward curiosity of young boys, whose mothers have dragged them into ladies’ bathrooms. Such poems, with their “cross-gendered” relationship between poet and poem’s speaker, really stand out, and by doing so they make it clear how rarely poets today, despite their mountain of production, venture toward these more expanded, risk-taking characterizations in their speakers. That said, Frank Bidart does come to mind as a notable exception.

The anthology’s editors promise poems about “every man you’ve ever known,” as well as glimpses of others you may or may not know (and may not wish to), such as voyeurs or victims of gang violence. These situations, too, are ripe for poetry, as are the lacrosse player’s and the suburban addict’s. Icons that help to define American masculinity appear – Elvis, Eminem, Walt Whitman, not to mention the TV show Cops (which in one heated poem becomes an aphrodisiac) and Xenia, Warrior Princess, whom Campbell McGrath memorably summarizes as “Zenith of carnage and woo.”

The language of the best poems gives voice to struggles that men typically prefer to leave unspoken, or they bring into our consciousness those hard-to-articulate efforts at healing. With poignant humor, Tony Hoagland argues that obscenities help boys “stranded” in puberty enter the “world of men.” Bad words do their work “as dumb / and democratic as a hammer.” The catalog of swear words displayed in Hoagland’s poem could stand proudly beside the cascade of insults shared by Hal and Fastaff in Shakespeare’s 1 Henry the Fourth (“bull’s pizzle” and the like).

Marvin Bell’s war veteran recalls how his machine gun fit behind his head or “across my shoulder blades / as I carried it, or to be precise, as it rode me.” Though the book contains preeminent poets such as Philip Levine, Richard Howard, and Rita Dove, I was pleased to discover less familiar work, like Christopher Bursk’s haunting poem of abuse, “What a Boy Does Not Say.” Often this reticence is less fraught, is more nonchalant, but in all cases this speaking forth of the left-unsaid is freshly revealing.

This collection at its best moments can startle by being both powerful and instantly recognizable at once. Perhaps men are not so simple after all, and could still be (in one poet’s words) “freed / from what they thought they had to do.”

Brett Foster's writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Image, Kenyon Review, Poetry East, and Raritan. His first book of poems will be published with Northwestern University Press.

Comments

Nicely put, Kudos.

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