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Posts Tagged ‘men’

poem is in the window, to the right of the striped pole

 

I won’t attempt to transcribe this shape poem.  WordPress would make a mess of the spacing, and instead of beards, the poem would look like a string of pennant flags.

 

 

Beards have been in the news lately, and not just in “News of the Weird” columns where beard stories presumably land—these beard tales are front page.  Major Nidal Hassan, on trial for killing 13 servicemen at Fort Hood, has been ordered to shave his beard.  The defendant had petitioned to keep his beard for religious reasons, but prosecutors argued that the beard growth is an attempt to confuse eyewitnesses.  Other beards were sheared in the trial of a breakaway Amish sect in Ohio charged with a hate crime.  It seems they clipped the long beards of rival Amish men to shame them.  They held down their victims and brandished shears used to cut horses’ manes.  The breakaway sect disapproved of the religious practices of the now short-bearded men.  I’d say that’s a big pile of facial fungus, considering that the group’s leader, the inaccurately named Samuel Mullet, offers members sexual “counseling” and punishes the sinful with long confinements in chicken coop cages.

 

It’s a shame Monty Python isn’t around anymore.

 

So now for something completely different:

 

The meaning of beards in Maxine Kumin’s poem, “The Victorian Obsession with the Preservation of Hair,” has nothing to do with religion.  The poem begins with a literary pogonology (a word new to me, meaning “the study of beards”), evaluating writers by the size and shape of their beards.  (I found a book online, Poets Ranked by Beard Weight, which does the same.  This tongue-in-cheek compendium of beard lore plays on the idea that we ascribe deep thoughts to those with large beards.  It also has a section on beard flirtation and beard dangers.  Link here for excerpts.  For those like me getting distracted by the very strangeness of beards, link here for beard charts and enjoy the wit of beard nomenclature.)

The poem’s title and the activity that led to Mrs. Longfellow’s death refer to a handicraft popular in Victorian times.  Women threaded needles with human hair to fashion pictures, rings and bracelets.  Hair crafts were used to mourn dead relatives.  Such preservation of what was once living, Kumin says, is a memento mori, a reminder of death.  (Once at a museum I saw a Victorian wreath woven from human hair.  I found it frightening and also disgusting which is mildly hypocritical, since I long ago gave a boyfriend my extracted tooth, wrapped up in a ring box.)

 

Kumin’s neat and self-referential structure of stanzas shaped like beards mirrors the neat if gruesome series of events in the Longfellow home.  In preserving the hair of a daughter she lost, Mrs. Longfellow lost her own life.  In trying to preserve the life of his wife, Longfellow nearly lost his own. His subsequent hair growth (necessitated by too-painful shaving) preserved the memory of his beloved wife.  His beard became his own Victorian hair craft.  It’s a Chinese box of a story and Kumin tells it straightforward, without flourish: the details of the story and the meaning she pulls out of it are embellishment enough.Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by The British Monarchy

 

Poems of course are less flammable forms of preservation.  Longfellow wrote a lovely poem to his dead wife (“The Cross of Snow”) which ends with another metaphor for preservation of the dead:

 

There is a mountain in the distant West

That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines

Displays a cross of snow upon its side.

Such is the cross I wear upon my breast

These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes

And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

 

Kumin preserves Longfellow’s devotion in a beard of her own creation. It almost makes me dizzy to think of the interplay of form and words and events, all together so clever and moving.

 

I left this poem outside a barbershop and congratulated myself for an impish placement.  But now that I think about it, the poem might have been better placed elsewhere.  Few men wear beards anymore, and if they do, the rest of their hair is usually gathered in an un-barbered ponytail.  Not counting men with a tentative commitment to facial hair—men on vacation and men with little goatees—the last man with a beard I knew was my college philosophy professor.  Back then beards and a corduroy blazer with elbow patches were practically a uniform in the philosophy department.  Dr. Stapleton wore it well and I loved going to his 8:00 a.m. class.

 

Maxine Kumin by joanmazzaPoet Maxine Kumin was born in Philadelphia in 1925.  She went to Radcliffe, now part of Harvard, and swam competitively there.  She took a seminar with novelist Wallace Stegner, and his criticism of her work discouraged her from writing poetry.  For a long time she wrote poems privately.

 

As a mother of young children, Kumin took a poetry class at an adult education center.  There she met poet Anne Sexton.  The two mothers, both at home, became close friends and stayed close up until the day of Sexton’s suicide.  Together they wrote four children’s books.  (The books were illustrated by Evaline Ness, wife of FBI agent Eliot Ness, the inspiration for the “Untouchables” television show.)  Kumin was first published at age 36, and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly prize, and most of the big honorifics a poet can receive.

 

She and her husband Victor, a chemical engineer who worked with Oppeheimer on the atomic bomb*, had three children and now live on a farm in New Hampshire where they raise organic vegetables and breed horses.  At age 74 Kumin almost died in a horse driving accident. She broke her neck, ribs, and punctured a lung but recovered and is still writing poetry in her eighties.

 

She’s often compared to another northeastern pastoral poet—she’s been called the feminist Robert Frost.  But after reading some of her poems and marveling at her non-writing daring-do, I’m starting to think of her as a feminist Ernest Hemingway:  physical, fearless, unembellished.  Sans the beard of course.

 

 

*Victor Kumin refused to continue work on the atomic bomb after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He was threatened with court martial but in the end was honorably discharged.  For a full account of his fascinating story, link here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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WATER AND FIRE

by Rick Cannon

For a long time

with the heavy, dreamy struggle upward,

the natural cupping of the hands,

the lengthy earning of a stroke,

a man does not know fire.

It’s not until he sees how easily things melt

and slide away,

how his father went,

his mother fails,

the skin over his wife’s cheekbones

suddenly softens, is looser,

not until then does he walk on flaming grass

into the furnace of the trees

and wonder that he’s not consumed.

Finding a suitable location for this poem stumped me for a while.  If the poem were written for women, I’d have a much easier time of it.  There are, after all, many more public spaces devoted to women than to men—more clothing stores, more facilities devoted to our personal upkeep, more aisle space for our drugstore needs.  How to reach the male audience for whom “Water and Fire” is intended?  In the men’s department, a sports bar, a stack of Esquire magazines at the bookstore?  Most of those places draw young men, and most young men wouldn’t think this poem could ever apply to them.  To borrow the metaphors of the poem, young men are too busy swimming along in their dreamy waterworld to imagine the trial by fire ahead.

So my question was, where do men of late-middle age go when they’re not at work?  Or when they’re not at home, collapsing on couches and muting sorrow with a click of the remote?  A few appropriate spots came to mind: a  urologist’s office, a golf course, a barber shop or, if I had an accomplice, the men’s bathroom.

But in the end, I decided to leave this beautiful poem in a beautiful location, on a Tidal Basin cherry tree.  Conveniently this was also a good way to celebrate my first year of blogging.  One of my first posts last year was on these same cherry blossoms, just after they had bloomed.  (This year the trees were only a smidge past peak, still faintly pink, which I took as an auspicious sign for my second year of blogging.)

If I needed a third reason to tape a poem to a cherry tree (and the more reasons I can accumulate, the more taping poems to trees seems like a reasonable project), Rick Cannon is from Washington, D.C., and teaches at Gonzaga High School just a few miles from where I left his poem.

Onto the poem itself.  The Everyman of “Water and Fire” moves through the two titular environments.  In water he’s protected from fire and doesn’t even know fire exists.  All his energy is focused on moving forward.  And then Everyman’s perspective shifts.  Whatever his efforts have earned him counts for nothing once life starts taking away what could never be earned in the first place:  his parents, his wife’s beauty and all those things unmentioned but somehow present in the poem—health, carefree children, marital harmony, bodies and homes untouched by bad accidents.  Life will be grueling at some point, there’s no escaping it.  But to walk through fire and not be burned to ash is to be triumphant and sorrowful both at once.

I’m reminded of the brutal coming-of-age rituals I read about in Miss Parr’s Social Studies class, rituals in which boys become men by leaping from great heights with vines tied to their ankles.  But in this poem, it is the older man who must endure trials.  And what does he become?  A man burned and scarred but stronger than the young fellow in the water.

I’m fascinated by glimpses like this of the male experience—and I must admit men are stranger to me sometimes than birds and not at all as simple as my husband claims them to be.  But it’s as a woman that I was initially drawn to this poem.  Specifically, the lines

the skin over his wife’s cheekbones

suddenly softens, is looser.

Ouch.  Thank goodness Cannon doesn’t mention vaginal atrophy, graying pubic hair, thinning eyebrows, the occasional whisker and other disheartening signs of physical decline in the female body.

(Which reminds me of a line from Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water, a play set in the U.S. Embassy in the Soviet Union.  Suspected of espionage, the bumbling Walter Hollander responds to his wife’s bragging about being the former Miss Wisconsin of 1938 with this lovely zinger about her legs:  “One look at those varicose veins and they’ll think I’m smuggling road maps.”)

Interesting that the man in the poem doesn’t notice his own decay, only that of the people around him.  God love all these men who can look in the mirror with such blindness and bliss!  Most women I know (including myself) obsess over aging faces.  We cling to what’s left of our beauty like lovers at a train station.  But not most men.  Either they’ve bought into the idea that they get better looking with age, or seconds after noticing their paunch, they pat it and put it out of their minds.

Of course the arc of life described in the poem is universal, and just as easily applied to women; and there’s no reason, I can hear my husband say, to fashion the poem into a dart to throw at men.  But it’s my blog and what’s done is done.

Rick Cannon graduated from Georgetown University and Iowa Writers Workshop.  In addition to teaching at Gonzaga for over 30 years, he’s an adjunct professor at Trinity University and has published three chapbooks.  He and his wife, poet Lori Shpunt, have five children.  You can read more of his wonderful poems here.

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