I have not posted a Fragments of Evolving Manhood piece on a long while, mostly because my attention has been focused elsewhere, but I have been working these past couple of weeks on an essay that is pretty important to me and since it fits in the “Fragments” series, I thought I’d share some of it. I’d love to be able to call the essay “The ‘Cunt Poem’ Challenge,” and I will probably send it out with that title, but I am betting not a few editors will have a hard time with it. In any event, here is the excerpt. Please be aware as you read that the first paragraph is the introduction, which I think you need for context, while the second and third paragraphs are from later on in the essay.
The leader of my first graduate poetry workshop — this was 1985 — was telling us about a challenge she’d issued to the men in the group of poets she hung out with when she was younger. “None of you,” she said she told them, “will ever write a successful ‘cunt poem,’ because, when it comes to cunts, men only understand clichés.” We all laughed, the three of us who were men perhaps a little uncomfortably, and then she informed us that a poem her challenge had inspired was in the anthology she’d assigned as our text. I read that poem four times when I got home that night, finding it harder to believe with each reading that anyone could have thought it deserved publication. Not only did it rely on precisely the kinds of clichés I understood my teacher to have been talking about, ending, for example, by calling women’s genitals, without irony, “the gates of paradise;” but the entire poem was built on the biggest cliché of all, treating The Vagina it discussed — because I still cannot help but think of the word as capitalized and in italics, even though it never appears in the poem — as nothing more than an object of the poet’s contemplation, like the Grecian urn had been for Keats, as if all the vaginas The Vagina represented were not in reality attached to the living, breathing bodies of actual women.
The first thing I did was trash every poem I’d written to that point. Then, once I’d let go of the baggage all that old work represented, the poems that became my first book, The Silence of Men(CavanKerry Press 2006), began to take shape. At last, I felt like I’d found a language in which I could speak about my body as my own, in which my desires and my fears, my vulnerabilities and regrets, my joys and my failures, were mine and no one else’s to give meaning to. Committing to that language meant committing to a radical honesty about who I was, both as a survivor of child sexual abuse and as a man; it meant rejecting utterly the rhetoric of invisibility with which the man who forced his penis into my mouth had so effectively and for so many years hijacked what I had to say.
That kind of honesty is precisely what is lacking in the clichés my teacher defined as the limits of the male imagination when it comes to writing about women’s genitals. Take, for example, the cliché that ends the “cunt poem” I spoke about at the beginning of this essay, “the gates of paradise.” The dishonesty in this metaphor lies primarily in the way it objectifies women’s bodies, describing not women’s experience of being embodied, and not even men’s experience of women’s bodies as bodies inhabited by women, but rather the particular experience men have of our own bodies when we have sex with women. It praises women’s genitals, in other words, not for being what they are, but for how men can use them, and so, on a cultural level, renders women as invisible and voiceless as I was rendered by the men who used me. To meet my teacher’s challenge, then, to be a male poet who writes a successful “cunt poem,” is not simply to find a non-cliché way of calling women’s genitals “the gates of paradise.” Rather, it is to discover language that will make visible the women whose genitals they are, unwrapping from within a male perspective the layers of misconception and misrepresentation in which they are bound by the sexual objectification of women that is so central to our culture. It is, in other words, a profoundly political endeavor, one that requires a man not only to refuse complicity in the inherent violation that sexually objectifying women is, but also to articulate a way of being a man who sees women as sexual beings that does justice to who they are as human beings.
This was for a long time what I thought I was going to call my second book of poems, though I was told to shorten it to “All That Struggled in You Not to Drown,” because the poem of the same title, a long love poem for my wife, is my favorite poem in the book. Recently, as one of the readers in “Body of Work,” the Queens in Love with Literature (QUILL) kickoff event for 2011 – 2012 – I am on the QUILL advisory committee – I had the opportunity to read “I Fell in Love with All That Struggled in You Not to Drown” accompanied by dancer/choreographer Keomi Tarver’s improvisations. The entire event was about the interplay between dance and poetry. Mine and Keomi’s performance was captured in these two videos. The text of the three poems, “Poem from the Barnes & Noble Café,” “I Fell in Love with All That Struggled in You Not to Drown (Movement 1)” and “Waiting for It All to Crumble Step by Step Beneath My Feet,” appears below. (Unfortunately, I don’t know how to make this WordPress template play nice with the original lineation.) I hope you enjoy them:
When I started walking
I wasn’t counting steps.
I was thinking how these days
were not what I’d hoped
life would reduce me to,
but when I crossed the street,
the switch that throws itself
inside my brain
whenever I walk alone
threw itself, and I was mouthing
numbers, tallying each stride
as if I were building meaning.
Then I was here, in the bookstore,
looking for that volume
on Iranian cinema, which I found
more easily than I thought I would,
so I rode the escalator
down to Music — a whim;
I haven’t bought a CD
in months — and almost knocked
an olive-skinned man
with a black and white keffiyeh
wrapped around his neck
into Britney Spears’ nearly naked
cardboard flesh. I grabbed his arm
to steady him; he gripped me back,
and someone slowing down to watch
might’ve thought we were old friends.
He continued on. I turned, stared
at the fringed fabric hanging down
the brown leather of his jacket—
so much like a tallis, I thought—
and recalled my own keffiyeh,
bought twenty years ago,
after Sabra and Shatila, from a
Black man with French-tinged English.
A shill for the Arabs,
my grandmother bit into air
I know she wished was him
when she saw it. I wish
the keffiyeh had meant
solidarity, or sympathy, or anything
better than escape, but it was
an escape, and wearing it
was a kind of freedom,
as there is freedom in wandering
these aisles, putting aside
Tangerine Dream for Axiom of Choice,
for a blues compilation we could dance to,
or for the Klezmatics, whose music
on the sound system also
invites dance, and so I’m dancing
a small shuffle into Show Tunes,
remembering Surprise Lake Camp’s
Fiddler On The Roof, the boy
who played Tevye, fat and athletic,
and when he danced, his belly
bounced out from under
his white shirt, and his tzitzis twirled
in the red stage lighting
like poorly placed stripper’s tassels,
and we all clapped, laughing,
singing along, hoping
it would never end. I moved him
the way I move myself, step-by-step
through the choreography,
keeping time with a chord
on the grand piano
that echoes in me still
as I bring the songs I want
to the cash register. I sign for them
as I’ve signed for so much else in my life
and take the escalator up three flights
for a cup of mint tea. Turning
from the counter, I catch
in the corner of my eye
the keffiyeh from downstairs
opening to a square, folding
to a triangle, and the man
I bumped into smiles at me,
nods at the chairs he and his friends
are getting up from, drapes
the cloth around his neck,
and leaves. On his table,
The New York Times: priests
using children for sex,
and George W. Bush wants
money to promote marriage
and to fight a war he says
will rid us of our fears.
I’m thinking how much
the world needs fear right now,
to step back from the mouth
of what has not yet happened,
like you’d want a suicide bomber to do,
or a soldier with orders to shoot civilians.
When you and I danced at our wedding,
arms raised, hands tracing
Persian rhythms in the air,
and when they lifted us on chairs
and danced the hora, your family
and mine, whatever we erased
it was not difference,
and so music is an answer
to the question I’m trying to ask,
for it is nothing when we come together
if it is not rhythm and melody,
counterpoint and harmony,
and you push yourself against my mouth,
and I’m kissing every year you’ve lived,
each thousand years of your country’s history,
the centuries of Islam, carpets
lost to the weather, the will
of god, all of it
vibrating live beneath your skin,
and you guide me, with your own hand
take me to the spot
where fear and hope, pain
and joy, merge to become
the irreducible fact of your flesh,
and it’s like when the band reaches
the last beat, and the dancers
in the final resolution:
It is peace, and if they, if we,
could stay there, there would be peace.
I remember Joe taking Patty and me one night to Jones Beach. Don’t try to swim, he warned. The undertow will drag you out. We walked in up to our ankles. Patty started dancing, kicking her legs up in a clumsy can-can, splashing me till my shirt was soaked through. When we got home, we slept in the same bed.
After the murder — Rose, Patty’s mother, was found stuffed in a hall closet, stabbed sixteen times with a serrated knife; Joe was the only suspect, but there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute — after the murder, I kept to myself, huddled with friends Patty didn’t know. When she came to tell me she was leaving to live with her aunt in New Jersey, I stood away from her, a monosyllabic Bye! my only answer.
When Joe came a few weeks later to collect his stuff, the woman from next door hid in our hall closet, the one where the termites had swarmed earlier in the year. She knew, she said, things she was afraid to tell the cops.
That was also the year Sandy got sick for the last time, and she knew she was going to die, had refused to be my girlfriend because of it. I didn’t go see her, never, that I remember, worried she might want to see me — and then she died.
I’m not being hard on myself.
I know I was only thirteen, and love at that age denies dying, but now I’m forty, and the little boy who calls me Richard instead of Dad could die tomorrow. As could you. As many will, even perhaps the man with the keffiyeh, in whose paper I read another headline: three youths, Arabs, arrested in France for bombing a synagogue I could’ve been in, and of course Israel should pull out now, and of course Palestine’s independence should be declared this moment,
the earth transformed to a tent where we all break bread,
each of us carrying what we’ve seen
the way musicians carry music
in the moments before they start playing.
Waiting for It All to Crumble Step by Step Beneath my Feet
I watch you walk away from the first sex we’ve had
in more months than either of us would like to admit,
and my breath catches at the light shining
from the full nakedness of your back, as if your skin
has taken in the long brightness that held us
as I held you holding me, and now
that the sun has moved past our window,
your body alone illuminates this room;
and from the garden downstairs
that is a garden I have carried in me
since I was younger than the little boy
whose play date has granted us these hours,
children’s laughter, an adult’s call
not to swing so high, and the same squeak
from when I was Shahob’s age
of the swing itself, a rusty metronome
keeping the beat of my life in Jackson Heights,
where I never thought I’d settle down.
Yesterday, I sat in the garden’s south end
thinking that I have never almost died,
not even the way my friend
who would’ve been beneath
the World Trade Center
“almost died,” except
she’d found just months before
a new job in another state,
so she was teaching The Comedy of Errors in Colorado
when the first plane hit.
The garden’s morning quiet
was more quiet than usual.
No pigeon congregation searched
the circular wood-chip middle for food;
no squirrels foraged; but then
a black shape spread its wings against the leaves,
casting a shadow on the 52 building’s back wall,
and I understood the bones picked clean
that we’ve been stepping over
when we walk the quiet center
the garden is at night.
The hawk allowed the air to carry it
to a branch midway up the oak that wasn’t here
when this grass was a football field for me and Claudia Joel
and Sundays meant dinner and Wild Kingdom
at grandma and grandpa’s. In one episode,
Marlon Perkins — or maybe it was his assistant Jim—
wrestled in a South American rain forest river
an anaconda thicker in my memory
than my thighs are now. I didn’t know
the scene would not have made it to the screen
if he had died, so when I saw the snake
pull beneath the river’s current
what I was sure would be
that man’s last living day,
I closed my eyes,
as I close them now,
wanting to see the moment
he broke the water’s surface
back into life, but it’s Armon’s
face that comes to me,
too scared to climb the fence,
and so he turns, hoping there’s a path
to lead him to the other side,
but it’s moonless mountain dark,
and he cannot know that where he steps is dirt
that’s been waiting at the cliff’s edge for days
for a reason to crumble.
we will hug his parents and his sister
in their grief and maybe find some words
to help them heal, but also
we will stand there giving silent thanks
our son is not the one we’ve come to mourn.
Before you took him with you to Iran,
Shahob drew a map connecting here
to wherever there was in his imagination,
tracing each part of the journey
on its own sheet of paper. This way,
he explained, I could find you in an emergency,
and you would not get lost on your way home.
He mixed and matched the sections
till the contours fit the shape
the trip made in his mind;
we taped them together and he smiled. Now I can leave, he said, kissing me.
The night President Bush ordered our military
to teach what the TV news commentator called the true meaning of terror to those monsters in Afghanistan, I dug with Shahob through the rock
hiding in our living room
dinosaur fossils we had to find
before he could sleep, so focused
on digging ever deeper into the private earth
he’d conjured for us to explore
that I did not once raise my eyes to the window
framing the column of white smoke
still rising from the lower Manhattan skyline;
and as I sat yesterday in the garden,
filling myself with these memories,
the moment came back to me when watching
that same smoke through that same window
transformed the child safety bars
the law required us to install
into the bars of a closed cage, and I thought
how each day since Shahob was born
has mapped our lives for us,
and will do so until we die.
The hawk took off again,
swooped low to the ground,
but nothing was there for its claws to close on,
so it rose, majestic, to rest its wings
among the branches keeping sunlight
from the spot in the children’s garden
where parents set their sons and daughters up
to play with water.
When I tell you what I saw, you’ll insist
those mothers and fathers need to watch the sky,
that a bird of prey wants prey and doesn’t care
if it’s a pigeon, a squirrel or a child.
The phone rings
just as the flush
finishes: our boy
calling that he’s ready
to come home.
I worry for him, you say,
pulling on your clothes,
picking up where we left off
before we got undressed.
Before you know it,
he’ll be old enough to draft,
and if it’s not Iraq, it will be Iran.
Imagine! My son drafted
to invade my country.
You lie down next to me,
draping one denim-covered leg
across my penis
that is half in love
with rising again.
Smiling at the inhaled pleasure
the gesture draws from me,
you push my arms
above my head. This was fun, you whisper, as if our son
were already home. If we had time,
I’d do you again, with my clothes on,
and the rule would be
if your hands moved
from where they are right now,
I’d stop. I smile back
but then you’re out the door,
and I know you’re trying not to make the list
of all the ways you’ve thought that he could die
before he should. Me? I’m replaying
the magician we watched last night,
the tablecloth he pulled from underneath
a wine-glass-filled service for four
without spilling a single drop.
Shahob asked me how it’s done
and would not accept my ignorance. What do you imagine the secret is? he kept asking,
because nothing he imagines
feels impossible to him.
I Fell in Love with All That Struggled in You Not to Drown
Inching the car today
past what Shahob called snorts
for his first eighteen months of words,
the rhythm circling in me
was a riff the composer in my head
lifted whole from the song—
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps”—
that sent me back to Floral Park, the bird
Jamie and I watched flap wounded to the ground,
and how he lied when the cops found his gun.
Then the beat changed, fast
triplets I drummed the wheel to,
conjuring you instead, pen in hand, the desk lamp
casting your shadow large against the wall behind you.
You whisper the lines to yourself as you write them,
believing this joy language brings
is all you’ll ever want. You’re seventeen,
and your poems hint, or maybe more than hint—
I’ve asked but you say you don’t remember—
that a daughter’s life, or a wife’s,
is less than you hope for, and so maybe
your parents feared the promiscuity they were taught
that women who dare what I am daring
here at my desk
become addicted to, or maybe
poetry kept you from your schoolwork.
All you’ll say is they pressured you to stop
and you did.
The traffic eased,
and the DJ played “Born To Be Wild,”
and as I sped singing past Lakeville Road
hoping to make up lost time,
I was singing for you,
aching to know the girl you were,
to have been the teacher, no, the friend
to whom you showed that first ghazal
you couldn’t keep to yourself,
because love means giving the world
the room it needs to move through you,
and love, in this past I am imagining for us,
was the word you stitched your couplets with,
as it was also, corny but true,
the chorus I turned the car off in the middle of—
The Beatles’ “All You Need Is…” — when I parked.
In class, we talked fashion: piercings
and why men shouldn’t wear thongs
unless they’re strippers, and not one of my students
thought pink on a man
could mean anything but gay,
and I remembered—
no, it wasn’t memory;
you’ve never told me — I imagined
you getting dressed for school the first day
of the public womanhood
the ayatollahs gave you no choice
but to learn to wear.
The breeze has been my lover, you recite to yourself in the mirror, and the sun, and you tuck
under your chador
the last few strands of hair
you need to cover, check
the length of your sleeves
and that your ankles
if you have to run
won’t emerge into light. And I have let the ocean pull me naked to its chest,
and with my fingers probed the earth’s flesh,
and filled my mouth with its fruit.
Then you pick up your book bag, call goodbye,
and appear next in this film I’m scripting
with the front door closed behind you,
a fledgling crow with no wings to spread
and a gauntlet of enemies to walk.
You move out into the gaze
of Tehran’s great male eye,
stepping small onto the street
where, when you were eight,
you left that flasher
standing by your sister’s bike,
convinced you wanted
what he held in his hand
and all he had to do
was wait right there
till you returned
with your mother’s permission,
and he did wait — you watched him
through the front window of your house—
long enough that you feared
he’d never leave, but then, finally, he left.
Now, stripped of any words
that might protect you,
convinced your cover
will never cover enough,
you move forward,
filling your eyes with nothing
that is not the three inches of air
directly in front of your face.
In case you’re interested, I have since changed my second book’s title to Because Men Only Understand Cliches–mostly because I think it makes a really interesting follow up to The Silence of Men, which was the title of my first book.
The first time the old man who lived in the apartment at the top of the staircase said hello to me, he stopped for a moment as we passed in the courtyard and smiled as if he’d known me my whole life. The second time, he did the same thing. By the third or fourth time, a ritual of greeting had grown between us. Whenever we saw each other, he would smile and say hello first; I would smile, say the same thing back, and then, for a long silent moment, he would fix me with his gaze while I stood there, too happily embarrassed to move, wishing when he walked away that I’d done something, anything, to prolong our conversation.
I think of him as “the old man” because of how young I was when I met him — I was thirteen — but he was probably not much older than the forty-nine-years-old I am now, if that old, and so he was the perfect age for me to see in him a possible surrogate father. My parents had separated when I was three; my stepfather had recently left us; and I was desperate for some kind of paternal attention and approval. So I was thrilled when the old man one day in late summer did not keep walking after our usual exchange, asking me instead, “When am I going to see you?”
I figured he was lonely, like Mrs. Schechtman had been when she lived in the apartment next to his, and the thought of visiting with him like I used to visit with her made me happy. “Soon!” I answered.
Not too long afterwards, I was on my way out of our building to meet my friends. The old man happened to be walking down the staircase leading from his apartment to the front door, which we reached at the same time. As I went to turn the knob, he held the door shut with his left forearm, maneuvering me with his right till I stood face first in the corner near the mailboxes where the door frame met the wall. Covering my body with his own, he ran his hands beneath my shirt and up the legs of my shorts; he groped my chest and belly, squeezed my butt, cupped my crotch, and he kept whispering hoarsely into my ear, over and over again, “When am I going to see you?”
I had no words for what he was doing, no training such as young children get now in how to scream no! to scare off an attacker. All I could do was stand there till he was finished; and when he was finished, I ran. I don’t remember how far or how long or in which direction, but I ran as if I could leave my skin behind, as if running would turn me into another person. When I stopped running, in the small park across the street from the Lutheran Church, I sat a long time with the knowledge that my running had undone nothing, that my body was still the body he’d touched.
Even if I’d wanted to tell someone — and I didn’t — I was sure no one would believe me, so I pretended nothing had happened. When the old man passed me the next day and said hello, I said hello back the way I always did, forcing myself not to see the ironic twist he added to his smile. After a couple of more times, our hellos began to feel normal again, and I told myself that maybe it hadn’t happened. Maybe he was just a lonely old man who liked to say hello, and as long as he stayed on his side of that hello, I felt — or, to be more accurate, I convinced myself that I was — safe.
Some weeks later, as I sat with my friends in front of our building, the old man came home from food shopping and asked me to help him upstairs with the bags in his shopping cart. I wanted to say no, but I couldn’t. To do so would almost certainly have raised questions for my friends about why I was being so rude, and the last thing I wanted to do was explain myself to them. So I took the bag he pointed to and followed him up to his apartment, where he opened the door and motioned me in ahead of him. The bag was heavy, so I stepped inside, thinking I’d leave it by the door and get out as quickly as I could, but he was too fast for me. As soon as the door shut behind him, he pushed the shopping cart to the side, took the bag from my arms and dropped it to the floor. The cans at the bottom landed with a crash that shook the whole apartment. Snaking his arms around my waist, he undid my belt and unzipped my pants, pushing them down so they fell around my ankles. All I could do was stand there, frozen to the spot where my feet had stopped moving. He took me by the hand and led me to the couch against the wall. He sat down. Looking up at me with a wide smile — I have the distinct memory that he’d taken out his two front teeth — his eyes, at what I imagine must have been the fear in mine, grew tender. “You’ve never had a blowjob before, have you?” When I shook my head no, his voice filled with concern. “But don’t you want me to love you?”
In the silence with which I responded, he took my penis in his hands — I remember thinking his fingers were like a cage — and he told me how good it was, how beautiful and big, and then his own pants were down, and I was sitting on the couch, and his penis, large and purple, hung in front of my face. His voice came from somewhere above me, urging me to play with it, at least to touch it, and I don’t remember if I did — no, at this point, my memory goes white, like the blank space in a video of which a portion has been erased, though I can still feel his hands on the back of my head. Then I see myself walking to the door, unlocking it, closing it behind me, and somehow I am next in my bed, curled in the fetal position, where I stay until my mother calls me for dinner.
The next day, the old man saw me standing by myself in front of our building. He didn’t come close, just stood some distance away and pleaded with me to go upstairs with him again. This time, he promised, would be different. He would move more slowly, be more gentle. I said no, ignoring his further pleas until he left me alone, which he did for the rest of the time he lived in our building. I still nodded in recognition if I was with someone when he saw me — I did not want anyone wondering why I didn’t — but otherwise I did my best to ignore him, and he seemed content to ignore me as well. Eventually, he moved away, and what he’d done to me receded even further into the silence I’d wrapped it in, and I pulled that silence around me like a protective cloak. No one else ever had to know.
The fabric of my silence started to fray when, at nineteen years old, I read Adrienne Rich’sOn Lies, Secrets and Silence. At the time, I was interested in Rich as a poet; I knew nothing about her as a feminist. Indeed, feminism itself was barely on my radar as something with a substantive relevance to my life, and so I was surprised to find myself enthralled and energized by the political and explicitly woman-centered content of what I was reading. Then I came to this passage from “Caryatid: Two Columns:”
[T]aught to view our bodies as our totality, our genitals as our chief source of fascination and value, many women have become dissociated from their own bodies…viewing themselves as objects to be possessed by men rather than as the subjects of an existence.
As soon as I read those words, a small voice in my head began to speak. “But what about me?” it wanted to know. “What about what happened to me?” I sought out other feminist texts and read voraciously, discovering in the feminist analysis of men’s sexual violence against women a vocabulary for naming what the old man in my building had done to me as the violation it was. More importantly, though, being able to name what he did made it possible for me to tell others, and when telling them did not bring the roof of the world crashing down around my head, I found the strength I needed to confront my abuse more fully by going to counseling. In a very real sense, then, I owe to feminism whatever healing I have achieved.
If I stopped here, even those of you totally opposed to feminism would probably be nodding your heads. “Of course you’re a feminist. It makes perfect sense.” Yet to stop here would be to reduce feminism to a kind of self-help ideology, implicitly denying that feminism is also a politics. More to the point, it would be to gloss over the fact that committing myself to those politics has been part and parcel of my healing.
Not too long after I first read Adrienne Rich’s essay, I was working as a summer camp supervisor in New York’s Hudson Valley. The leader of a training session we were required to attend told us he would use the word she as the generic pronoun when discussing how to deal with campers who might choose to tell us that they’d been sexually abused. Since most abuse happened to girls, he explained, referring to both boys and girls as victims would give us a skewed picture of reality, making it difficult for us to respond appropriately. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. It wasn’t just that he so blithely dismissed my experience. What he said seemed to imply that the sexual abuse of boys and the sexual abuse of girls were so radically different in nature that we could not talk about them in the same context. If that were true, it called into question everything I thought I’d been learning from feminism, suggesting that the strength I’d been drawing from that learning was based on a false premise.
My body rebelled at this idea. Each time I tried to tell myself that the session leader was right — because the weight of his expertise made it hard to think he wasn’t — I wanted to crawl out of my skin no differently than I had after the first time the old man in my building touched me. Still, there was no denying that the books I was reading said not one word about my experience. Girls and women were abused and exploited in those pages, not boys, and certainly not men. I’d found myself in Rich’s essay, in other words, as well as in the other feminists texts I was reading, through a process of analogy. To take another instance from “Caryatid: Two Columns,” when Rich wrote about how the values of our culture “equat[e]…manhood…with the objectification of another’s person and the domination of another’s body,” I understood her to be describing, with a chilling accuracy, what the old man in my building had done to me, even though she was talking explicitly about men’s sexual objectification of women.
This analogy only grew stronger as I began to see very precise parallels between the old man’s method of “seducing” me — because that’s what I think he thought he was doing – and the methods for getting women into bed that some of my male friends talked about using. I remember, for example, a dorm room conversation from when I was an undergraduate. The “stud” among us – call him Liam – was talking about the kind of women with whom sexual success mattered to him the most. These were, he said, the women who resisted, the ones who made him work for it, forcing him to prove that he could bend them to his will — I think he actually used those words — because getting them to have sex with him made him feel most like a man. As Liam described how he sized such women up, I suddenly realized that the old man in my building had sized me up as well, that he had to have been watching me before the first time he said hello. I was a shy, awkward and needy kid, so he gave me the kind of attention that would make me feel noticed and that I would therefore want more of. Liam talked about this as the “stage of flattery.” Then, once the old man could see in me a growing desire for his attention, he must have assumed that I also desired (perhaps without realizing it) everything else he wanted to “give” me as well. According to Liam, a woman who resisted at this stage really wanted sex but was afraid of being labeled “easy.” She needed to be “taken,” he said, so she could give up her self control without feeling guilty. Following what I am sure was a similar logic, the old man used the force he thought was necessary to push me past the fear he believed was keeping me from expressing my true desire. How else to explain the question he asked me before my memory goes blank, “But don’t you want me to love you?”
Ironically, this parallel between the two men was comforting. It affirmed for me that there was no reason to believe my experience of abuse differed in any essential way from the experience of a girl or woman whom a man had similarly violated. The session leader had to have been wrong. Yet there was also no avoiding the fact that the feminists I was reading placed me as a man in the same category as the two men I have been talking about. Here, again, from “Caryatid: Two Columns,” is Adrienne Rich:
Rape is the ultimate outward physical act of coercion and depersonalization practiced on women by men. Most male readers…would perhaps deny having gone so far: the honest would admit to fantasies, urges of lust and hatred, or lust and fear, or to a “harmless” fascination with pornography and sadistic art.
I was fascinated by pornography; I had fantasies that combined lust and fear; and it was impossible to miss the cynical accusation in Rich’s use of the word “perhaps.” More tellingly, though, and damningly, I had to admit that when Liam explained what it took for him to feel sexually like a man, I could not help but measure myself against the standard he set. I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, and I wasn’t having sex, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t sometimes make me feel inadequate. However, it was only after I met a woman who rejected me because I was not “man enough” in precisely Liam’s terms that I began to understand how fully the sexual values to which he subscribed were also values I had in me, whether I wanted them or not.
I met “Ling” through one of her suitemates, “Denise,” who sat next to me in the class I was taking on Shakespeare’s comedies. The three of us spent an afternoon talking and joking in the library when we were supposed to be studying, and we hit it off so well that soon I was walking across campus a couple of times a week to hang out with them and “Naomi,” the third woman with whom they lived. Sometimes, if I stayed too late, I’d sleep on the couch in their suite and go back to my own dorm in the morning. One such night, Ling and I stayed up talking on that couch. I don’t remember a single thing we said except for the fact that she told me about her experience emigrating as a young girl from China to the United States, but I know I felt good as I walked back to my dorm the next morning. I liked Ling a lot, and I hoped that our talking might lead to a romantic relationship.
The day after that, I saw Ling on campus walking with Naomi past the library. I called out to them and ran over to say hello. Instead of saying hello back, however, they started mocking me, calling me “little boy” and “coward.” I couldn’t imagine they were doing anything other than joking with me, so I started to laugh with them. When I tried to ask Ling how she did on the test she’d had that morning, though, the two women backed away, laughing even harder and holding up their hands to tell me I shouldn’t come any closer. I was confused. I called that night, but Denise told me Ling wasn’t there and that it would probably be a good idea if I didn’t call again. Ling had been very insulted that not once during the time we were talking on the couch did I even try to kiss her. I called a couple of more times after that, hoping I’d be able to tell Ling how much I really did like her, but the one time I got her on the phone she was so clearly not interested in talking to me that I stopped calling. I neither saw nor spoke to her again.
I was heartbroken. More than that, though, I was angry and ashamed. I replayed the whole night over and over in my mind, trying to figure out which raised eyebrow or touch on my arm or significant gaze I should have understood as Ling’s cue that it was time for me to kiss her. I just could not see what she clearly thought should have been obvious. I tried to imagine how the night might have gone differently, creating a scenario in which I leaned over and kissed Ling gently at the edge of her mouth, as if I’d been aiming for her cheek and missed. She sat back, looked at me for a long moment, and then, of course, kissed me in return. Each time I played this scene in my head, however, my anger and shame only increased. I still didn’t understand how I was supposed to have known that Ling wanted me to kiss her. As my sense of inadequacy grew, the sting of Ling’s mockery grew as well, and I started to think that maybe I was indeed no better than the weak, cowardly and ineffectual little boy she and her friend had told me that I was.
Once again, though, my body rebelled, and a nausea rose in me. Instead of making me want to crawl out of my own skin, though, this nausea was accompanied by a rage that propelled me past Ling’s skin and into her body. Now, in the scenes I played in my head, I saw myself “taking her” the way Liam had described “taking” women who were afraid of seeming too “easy,” except I didn’t realize I was following Liam’s script. Then, once, as I imagined myself putting my hands on either side of Ling’s face to hold her still while I kissed her, I had a sense memory of the old man in my building putting his hands on the back of my head to pull my mouth towards him. I was mortified. I spent the rest of that day alone, trying everything I could think of to twist what I had imagined into a shape that was not what it was: precisely the kind of rape fantasy that Adrienne Rich had written about. The fact that Ling might truly have wanted me to “take her” — whatever “taking” might have meant to her — was beside the point. What mattered was that I’d imagined myself “taking her” out of rage, to prove I was a man, not in response to anything I knew about Ling’s actual feelings or desires. In Rich’s words, I had “equat[ed my]…manhood…with the objectification of another’s person and the domination of another’s body.”
I swore I would do everything in my power to unlearn that equation.
At the heart of my feminism, then, is a paradox. On the one hand, as a survivor of male sexual violence, I stand with women against the culture of manhood which produces that violence and which the violence in turn perpetuates. On the other hand, as a man, I am — I have no choice but to be — implicated in that violence. The challenge with which feminism confronts me is to make sure that I never allow myself to stand on the same side as my abuser. Meeting this challenge has not been easy. It is often uncomfortable to call other men out on their sexism; and it can be similarly uncomfortable when someone calls me out on mine. Perhaps the most difficult thing, however, has been resisting the temptation to wear my sexual abuse as a badge of difference, as if having been forcibly penetrated by another man — because I am convinced that what I cannot fully remember did in fact happen — had somehow emptied me of the manhood I was trying to prove in my fantasy with Ling, the same manhood that Liam valued so highly and that is at the root of male sexual violence.
Because I have been coerced into the position that this kind of manhood usually reserves for women, in other words, it is easy to feel that my relationship to this manhood is essentially the same as a woman’s. Yet whatever else may be true about the fact that I was sexually abused, the social and cultural context in which that abuse exists does not portray either the boy I was or the man I am as a sexual object in the way that it pervasively portrays women. Nor am I subjected to the daily depredations of misogyny and discrimination, individual and institutional, that women experience because of their status as sexual objects. Finally, because I am a heterosexual man, there is no escaping the fact that both the pleasure this objectification is designed to deliver and the advantages it is supposed to confer are meant quite explicitly for me.
It is, in other words, as if there are two voices speaking within me: the voice of the man who is trying to own up to and change the culture of male sexual violence and the voice of the man who, as that culture’s victim, feels like he has nothing to own up to. Integrating these two voices has been the defining challenge of my life, personally, professionally and creatively. I called my first book of poetry The Silence of Men because I was breaking the silence in my life that had resulted from keeping these two voices separate. More, I hoped my poems would speak to and for men whose lives were shot through with a similar silence. Writing essays like this one also lets each of the men inside me have his say, allowing me to speak about what the old man in my building did to me, while still doing justice to the complex relationship between who I am because of what he did and the man I have been taught I am supposed to be.
Feminism showed me how to connect the old man’s inhumanity to the inhumanity of what I have been taught; and feminism is the only politics I can name that explicitly commits itself to a world in which that kind of inhumanity is no longer acceptable. That is why I am a feminist man.
In the dream, my life was smoke: I couldn’t breathe.
So I ran, unwrapping myself down the beach
till your skin, the ocean, lapped at my knees.
I dove in. Your voice was a current,
a melody gathering words to itself
for us to sing, and we sang them,
and they swirled around us, iridescent fish
bringing light to the world you were for me;
and then I was water, a river
washing the night from your flesh,
and I cradled your body rising in me
till you were clean, glowing,
and when you surfaced, glistening,
there was not an inch of you I didn’t cling to.
Ethics Of The Fathers
Moses received the Torah from Sinai
and passed it on to Joshua, who gave
it in his turn to The Elders, and love
or duty, or maybe both, explain why
we still hand it down, even if we die
doing so. The Church burned us alive,
the Romans did worse…but you who give
yourselves to goyishe women, you lie
with their gods as well, and so we cast you out.
The rabbi paused, whispered Come back, and left
the stage. No applause. Behind me, a man laughed.
Beside me, a woman squirmed in her seat.
In love, my love, I’ve given myself to you,
neither god nor goddess, and not a Jew.
Knees rooted in the bed on either side
of your belly, my body’s a stalk of wheat
bent in summer wind, a bamboo shoot
rising, an orchid, and then all at once a cloud
swelling, a swallow sculpting air, a freed
white dove. You pull me down, but you are hot
beneath me, and the gust that is my own heat
lifts me away: I’m not ready. Outside,
footsteps, voices. Two men. Giggling, we pull
the sheet around us till they pass, but if someone
does see, what will they have seen? A couple
making love. No. More than that: They will
have seen the coming of the rain; they will
have seen us bathe in it, and they will say Amen.
This past Saturday, my colleague and friend Marcia McNair interviewed me about my book of poems, The Silence Of Men, on her BlogTalk Radio show, The Power of Poetry. I hope you’ll give a listen.
Marcia is a perceptive reader and wonderful interviewer and her questions led me to see things in my poetry that I hadn’t seen before. My favorite part of the conversation was about the poem called “Working The Dotted Line,” which tells the story of the first time an old girlfriend and I had sex, and she was a virgin. What I liked best about Marcia’s reading of this piece was her noticing my mother’s presence in the poem and how that started me talking about something I often encounter but have never given much serious thought. Most of the men I know, even as adults, are deeply uncomfortable with their mother’s sexuality, and I don’t understand it. Or, to be more accurate, while I understand intellectually, I don’t get it emotionally. As well, they often it profoundly disturbing that I am not made uncomfortable not just by the idea of my mother as a sexual being, but by the fact that, when I was growing up, I knew – that she made no effort to hide the fact (though she certainly did not rub it in my face either) – that she had sexual relationships with at least some of the men she dated. I even knew that my mother would occasionally go to bars, or dancing, where men would try to pick her up, or where she might try to pick someone up herself, and it didn’t bother me. Indeed, it seemed to me perfectly natural. Why wouldn’t my mother, who was in her 30s at the time, go out and have a good time, and do things that other single 30-year-old women did when they socialized? My mother has been a single woman since I was around 12 years old, and I have always known that she had a sex life. More to the point, I have never expected her not to have one or to keep it hidden from me. I met all, or at least most (as far as I know), of the men she dated when I was growing up, and it never seemed strange to me or wrong or awkward that she should have men in her life or that I should know she was having sex with them. (Though it was often, I think, awkward for them.) I don’t really have much else to say about this for now, but it is something I want to write about, something I had never really thought to write about until Marcia brought it up. Here is the poem:
Working The Dotted Line
I don’t remember what vacation
I was home for, or how Beth
managed to be in New York
on the one day we’d have
the apartment to ourselves,
but I think I recall
my mother’s hanging crystals
scattering the afternoon sunlight
in small rainbows that shimmied
on the walls and on our skin,
and I can still see Beth stretching
nervous along the length
of the daybed’s mattress,
and my fingers tracing
the ridges of her ribs
as she tugged at my erection. I’m ready. Let’s do it!
It was her first time, not mine,
but it was my first condom,
and I’d forgotten to read the directions,
so I stood there growing soft,
squinting at the print on the box
telling me the step-by-step
I needed to learn
was on the inside.
I ripped the cardboard open
and sat reading on the bed’s edge,
thumbing the foil-packed
trying to visualize
what I had to do.
Beth reached into my lap
to ready me again,
but when I tore along the dotted line,
our protection, like a goldfish
taken by hand from its bowl,
slipped from my grasp
and landed under the desk
my mother sat at
when she paid the bills.
When I picked it up,
it was covered with the dust
and small particles of dirt
that settle daily into all our lives,
so I didn’t put the next one on
till I was kneeling hard
between Beth’s open legs.
She raised herself on her elbows,
smiling that the second skin
we needed to keep us safe
should make me so clumsy,
but once I let go
of what the instructions called
the reservoir tip — I thought
of the dams holding water back
in the mountains near where she lived
and what would happen if they broke—
her smile disappeared
and bunching the sheet beneath her
into her fists, she lifted
her butt onto the pillow
we’d heard would make things easier.
I bent for a quick look
at where I had to go
and climbed up onto her,
trying with one hand
to be graceful and accurate
and with the other
to balance over her
At her first grimace
I pulled back. No!
She shook her head, eyes
clamped shut and then
staring wide, her voice
a whisper through clenched teeth, Just do it! Get it over with!
So I entered her again, trying
from the tightness in her face
to gauge how hard not to push,
but when she cried out anyway,
I left her body one more time
and crouched over her,
my latex-covered penis
towards her navel,
and I placed my palms
against her cheeks, I cannot hurt you like this!
Look, it’s going to hurt, she said. There’s no other way.
And I’ve chosen you!
And since I wanted so much to be her choice,
I kissed her eyelids and her mouth,
and with my eyes buried
in the hollow of her neck
moved slowly in
till I felt her flesh
stop giving way. Then,
with one arm around her rib cage
and the other around her head,
holding her tight against my chest,
I pulled down and thrust up
in a single motion I breathed through
like I was lifting heavy boxes.
She screamed into the muscle
just above my collar bone,
bit deep into my flesh,
and, as she bled onto me,
We said nothing afterwards.
We didn’t cuddle
or smile at each other as we dressed
or walk hand in hand
to the train that took her home;
and I did not ask her
what her silence meant,
nor she mine, but if she had,
I would’ve told her this:
My wordlessness was shame.
I’d no idea how not to hurt her;
and I would’ve told her
I wanted it to do over,
which is what I’d tell her even now.