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Toward a New Masculinity

Five Poets and the Politics of the Male Body

ISSUE:  Summer 2017

<i>Calling a Wolf a Wolf</i>. By Kaveh Akbar. Alice James, 2017. 100p. PB, 6.95.<i>When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities</i>. By Chen Chen. BOA Editions, 2017. 96p. PB, 6.<i>The Yellow House</i>. By Chiwan Choi. CCM, 2017. 128p. PB, 6.95.<i>Together and By Ourselves</i>. By Alex Dimitrov. Copper Canyon, 2017. 96p. PB, 6.

“Women have their faults, men have only two: everything they say, everything they do,” goes an old adage I remember fellow feminists wisecracking for most of my life. I was born in the seventies and am a nineties feminist. In my lifetime misandry has never gone entirely out of style, due to brutal misogyny and those who fight it: feminists a generation before me, feminists of my generation, and those a generation after me now. We’ve never quite been out of a calling, yet never have I felt its pull as strongly as I have recently. #Notallmen, we typed in tweets and texts in anger and jest—#notallmen, I’ll put here too—but nothing can support misandry’s thesis better than just the existence of that miserable hashtag.

This year has challenged me to exist without hating men. Blame it on the pressures of two clicking and clashing patriarchal cultures—Iranian and American—and how they twisted and turned within the folds of the 2016 election. America traded feminism for racism and we got an entire regime devoted to bigotries of all sorts, where misogyny is well, king, you might say.

As a citizen I have rarely felt more powerless, but behind the pen I can perhaps fool myself that some work can be done. For a decade now, since the publication of my first novel, interviewers have asked me why I chose male protagonists in my fiction—Xerxes, the Iranian-Angeleno-New Yorker at quarter life in my first novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects; Zal, the feral asexual boy dreaming of (hu)manhood in my second, The Last Illusion. Why did a male perspective seem to be of great comfort to me, they ask. Comfort. This astounded me. Were they reading my work? If likable women reign over prose’s terrain, as we are told, surely my unlikeable men could be seen for what they are, too? But it seemed they were asking less was I a champion of men and more was I actually a bit of a man. Without going too deeply into my life story with its cast of bad men, one simple answer I landed on for interviewers was this: I have an interest in fallen men, in masculinity compromised. I can see almost every problem on this planet linked to male fragility and toxic masculinity, so how can I not be interested? Too often nothing but men have been in the way of nearly all I could achieve.

While for many years I’ve mostly reviewed books by women, interviewed women, and promoted women, I took it upon myself to do the opposite of what male feminists around me were endlessly boasting about: the reading of only women. Call it a final exodus before a descent into pure man-hating, but I carved out more space for the work of men these past few seasons. Lucky for me, the poets took me there. As I read the five male poets here, I tried to imagine a new masculinity. Could we be on the cusp of the sort of male identity we’ve waited for our whole lives? Is virility even a notion we could reframe and redefine? What if the unfairer sex could step out of themselves, too, and just be human beings?

<i>Don’t Call Us Dead</i>. By Danez Smith. Graywolf, 2017. 96p. PB, 6.

If you are hungry for complicated layers of displacement spiked with an uneasiness of any sort of assimilation, as I am, Alex Dimitrov’s poetry might feel like just the right home for your homelessness. Bulgaria-born and Detroit-raised, Dimitrov is so many times removed from any easy belonging that of course New York and Los Angeles and their ideologies automatically become havens. His first collection, Begging for It, and his online chapbook American Boys earned him a substantial following in his twenties, and every project he approaches attracts awe. But his second collection, Together and By Ourselves, reintroduced me to him in unexpected ways. If Begging for It is an old downtown gallery afterhours, this is the marble and windows and mirrors of a grand museum sculpture garden on the first few minutes the doors open. The hard weight and stillness in these pages demands a different sort of attention. The quest for cosmopolitan equilibrium is in every page, where the cold glamour of New York and the hot lustiness of L.A. coexist in near harmony. There is a certain type of elegant weariness in the collection that you’d hear in some of Mark Strand’s later work—here Dimitrov, still in his thirties, reconsiders himself and his worlds with tension and anxiety that’s draped in beauty. 

Split into five sections, we wake up in bed with all sorts of personas and personhoods. The Davids, Michaels, Williams, Jameses come in and out of an America of William Eggleston and Robert Frank. WASP America is on a pedestal as well as on trial—but this is not Frederick Seidel riffing on his native habitat. You feel him at the edges, dabbling, an outsider who, like the title of this collection, is only as in as he’s out. 

 “Life is like Los Angeles. Bright and disappointing” begins “Famous and Nowhere,” and the rest trickles out tensely without a zinger: “Leaving town I sat next to a senseless and beautiful boy / who asked where I live. / His unwashed hair or the way his eyes were just eyes… / the soul is a tiring thing. You can have it.” Absences are everything and Dimitrov is a bard of negative spaces as he plays with reversals, contradictions, and juxtapositions—“Alone Together” is next to “Together Alone,” and there is a doubling-down and doubting of every sentiment in ways that are not symmetrical or easy. “We may have been alone together / flying over the coast where we both couldn’t stay. / The gentleman in the novel came into your bed; / one day, without warning, you felt like him too.” 

There is a stylishness in everything Dimitrov does, but Together and By Ourselves is something thicker, a cashmere for whispering within and weeping into.

If displacement is one way into the world of men, then it is no coincidence that another young queer immigrant poet, Chen Chen, worked his way deep into my heart and soul. Born in Xiamen, China, and raised in Massachusetts, Chen’s debut, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, is a masterpiece of arrival and revelation. Rarely does a poet announce every aspect of himself with so much candor, while still playing with all the dark and light that comes with that. There is joy in identity in these pages, a feeling I’d long forgotten.

Chen’s range alone is something to marvel at. In “For I Will Consider My Boyfriend Jeffrey,” Chen’s cheeky Christopher Smart homage, I found myself (somehow!) delighted by his partner’s facial hair along with him: 

For sixthly he shaves.
For seventhly he shaves.
For eighthly he shaves.
For ninthly he shaves, then asks me to come help.
For tenthly he holds back a giggle while I tickle the back of his neck with the buzzing razor.  

Enthusiasm is always infectious in these pages, but so is, at the next step, irascibility. In “Race to the Tree,” Chen recalls a first kiss, with a half dozen emotions as it should be:

I wanted to kiss a boy
on the throat, not the soft, smooth
neck but the protruding, tough
core of a boy’s throat, the part
     named after the very first boy
     & the stupid fruit his girlfriend
     made him eat. 

Women are not nurturers in Chen’s world: a nagging mother, an annoying girlfriend—in many ways, they are allowed their humanity by being antagonists. In rejecting pure ingenues and perfect mothers, Chen grants women the full complexity of feminine fallibility, as if he knows we are actually human.

Male queer identity is painted in every hue possible; Chen explores the realities, from delight to horror, in this collection. The dilemma never feels more real than when tucked into the politics of culture clash. Here, in “First Light,” when Chen is faced with his mother’s terror at his sexuality: “What do I remember of crying? When my mother slapped me / for being dirty, diseased, led astray by Western devils, / a dirty, bad son, I cried, thirteen, already too old, / too male for crying.” In “Self-Portrait as So Much Potential,” we know Chen will be okay as he settles into the negative space of anti-identity that queerness has carved for many of us who feel the impossible rigidities of two heteronormative cultures: “I am not the heterosexual neat freak my mother raised me to be. / I am a gay sipper, & my mother has placed what’s left of her hope on my brothers.” The clashes between child and mother are as flesh and blood as they are figurative—the old and the new toward American culture as well as the old world, raw sexuality meeting the mythos of forever-adolescence many minorities are forced within. Chen’s greatest act of defiance here might be that he doesn’t want to provide the answers—he turns it over to us, the readers, to piece for ourselves.

Enter Chiwan Choi and his haunting The Yellow House to contemplate these questions and many more I didn’t realize needed answering. Choi is another immigrant poet—born in Seoul to a family that migrated to Paraguay—whose writing I’d dipped in and out of for years but never needed more than this year. After two collections of poetry—The Flood and Abductions—Choi then wrote, presented, and destroyed his novel Ghostmaker throughout the course of 2015 as a performance piece in Los Angeles. It is from the tangles of those experimental roots and the ashes of that self-erasure that The Yellow House gloriously rises. The collection took my breath away from the beginning: “i chose poetry / over honesty / then lived this unremarkable life.” 

Choi has been an activist in many ways—from his work as editor and publisher of Writ Large Press (“an indie press that uses literary arts and events to resist, disrupt, and transgress”) to drawing attention to critical issues surrounding writers of color on social media. Those concerns are ever present in The Yellow House, but they are stunningly knotted with a most personal investigation. Take Choi’s father, a major ghost of this collection:

in his left arm
he holds me tucked like a football

i will remember the smell of his sweat
from working on the construction site
all day.

The voice of manifesto that so many activists become burdened with here is secondary to the voice of memoir, confession which buries us in the beauty of its broken registers. Choi gorgeously transfers and transforms the dilemma:

and for a moment
i imagined i was a wolf

or that half of me was

and i was walking through the snow
with my pack

searching for the place
i marked with my first breath. 

And at other times, Choi tells it plainly as if you are his best friend and he’s had enough of hiding:

mom asks me about loneliness, mine,
and i say i am 15 and i am not lonely even if i’m alone

curling up into my body raging against itself into
an unprepared manhood to hide

because my father would anger
in hearing me speak weakness.

A sort of unprepared manhood is a theme throughout, just as rootlessness and a constant longing for a home pervade the collection.And there is a seeking of home, a building of it, a tearing it down, and the final realization: Choi’s body is the yellow house. What greater entity to honor, what realer one to escape than the self?

Yet another poet of immigrant roots and multiple displacements, Kaveh Akbar creates a language for his readers and himself because who else could do it? It’s rare for Iranian American writers like Akbar and I to gracefully move past the tricky task of introducing and explaining our cultures (plural, as “Iranian” is about as diverse as “American”). Here, in his forthcoming Calling a Wolf a Wolf, more than any other lens of identity, the alcoholic steps into the spotlight. But the genius is his allowing all the many cultures that are contained and challenged within the identifier of addict to play well together. In this way gender, sexuality, ethnicity even, are subverted, bypassed, and somehow also honored. 

There is also the zoological, as bedrock for much of the explorations of identity. In “Some Boys Aren’t Born They Bubble,” the human seems almost metaphor for a bestial energy that is truer than us, that drives a consumption that can destroy us personally and politically:

      they are desperate
to lick and be licked     sometimes one will eat
all the food in a house or break every bone

in his jaw     sometimes one will disappear into himself
like a ram charging a mirror when this happens
they all feel it     afterwards the others dream.

And, like Choi, Akbar presents maximum intimacy when it comes to his father. In “Learning to Pray,” Akbar opens:

     My father moved patiently
cupping his hands beneath his chin,
     kneeling on a janamaz
     I ached to be so beautiful.
I hardly knew anything yet—
     not the boiling point of water

or the capital of Iran,
     not the five pillars of Islam
or the Verse of the Sword—

     I knew only that I wanted
to be like him,
     that twilit stripe of father.

Akbar can’t help but take the ancestral to the phantasmagorical. Reverence for the father is just as complicated as reverence for all male bodies. In “A Boy Steps Into the Water,” Akbar lets us witness the delicate politics of awe: 

and of course he’s beautiful
goosebumps over his ribs
like tiny fists under a thin sheet      the  sheet
all mudwet and taste of walnut

and of course I’m afraid of him.

John Berryman and James Wright (and his son Franz Wright) haunt Calling a Wolf a Wolf, but Akbar also has a voice so distinctly his—tinted in old Persian, dipped in modern American, ancient and millennial, addict and ascetic, animal and more animal. In the end, nothing brings man—human or man—down to Earth more than the kingdom of flora and fauna.

You don’t need to be an immigrant to understand the politics of being an outsider in this troubled nation. Minnesota-born Danez Smith investigates the reality and mythology around the black male in a collection that truly changed my life with its beauty and power. In Dont Call Us Dead, Smith looks at blackness and queerness from many angles, in a time when both—separately and at their intersection—are threatened, yet again. Then add how Smith dissects being HIV positive in these accounts, and whatever you might imagine this collection to be given all this, imagine that it’s even more stunning.

Elegy meets celebration of the black male body on every page. In “last summer of innocence,” Smith chronicles early troubled sexual encounters with girls, but the poem’s revenge and triumph is its end: “boy after boy after boy after boy / pulling me down into the dirt.” Just pages later comedy and tragedy are on full display with the poem “a note on the phone app that tells me how far i am from other men’s mouths” placed next to another poem: “& even the black guy’s profile reads sorry, no black guys.” 

One of the most memorable poems here, “recklessly,” uses everything from song lyrics to fragmented anecdotes to cycle through all the phases of love and its many lonelinesses. For Smith, this is a “love story”: “he came/over // & then he left // but he stayed.”

A few pages later in the same cycle:

next time a man comes
over, i’ll cut the veins
out my arms, arrange them

like cooked spaghetti
on the kitchen table
in the shape of a boy’s face
& say  here’s what happened.

I found myself gasping at the honesty with which the language of desire was presented. When people go on about vulnerability being the real strength, Smith’s artistry is a testament to that. You can see this in Smith’s debut, the also breathtaking [insert] boy, as well as chapbooks hands on ya knees and black movie. You can see this in Smith’s slam poetry and viral classics online. Smith can’t help but be breathtaking in style and substance. 

Somehow, in all the pain presented here, I found hope in even the restlessness of Smith’s rendering. In “litany with blood all over,” the poem dissolves in the words “my blood” and “his blood,” which become layered over each other chaotically as they spill down the page—and yet the collection continues. And there is a way any reader is brought in but also challenged, as ones positioning in relation to these annals is what makes this book an experience unlike few others. We are in here, but where exactly? And which “we” are we exactly? Smith doesn’t need to answer those questions for us, but it’s more than about time we did. 

Welcome to the season of our constant failure, I wrote a friend recently. I wanted to land on a theory of new masculinity, but I have failed. Still, I found that I want to sit down every man in this country and ask that he hear the songs and whispers and the shrieks and coos and the snaps of these poets. Still, I wanted us to wonder about male lineage, to pay attention to male bodies, to remember male mortality. Still, I wanted us to see men, the ones who weren’t going to rescue us or get in our way, but who were going to sit—maybe even fight—alongside us for once. 

And I realized in this time of unending painful introspection, another want: to find myself in others. Instead I got a need: In this season of darkness when I wanted badly to be seen, instead I saw.


When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities. By Chen Chen. BOA Editions, 2017. 96p. PB, 6." src="//" alt="When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities. By Chen Chen. BOA Editions, 2017. 96p. PB, 6." width="195" height="250">


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DJ's picture
DJ · 6 years ago

This piece is so all over the place I unfortunately had to read it twice to make sure I hadn't read it too fast the first time. 

You start out kvetching about men as a woman and then go into a review of (primarily) gay male poetry as if they write to represent some new universal non-stereotypical male voice?  Each one is writing to express his own experience, not to be a voice for a marginalized group. There are plenty of straight men who are caring toward and even in awe of women, and plenty of gay men who are misogynists. The only take away I got was that you wish you were a gay man. Where do gay women fit into your sense of hope or injustice?

Isnt the larger issue that individuals shouldnt have to live with the onus that they represent a stereotypical group? That a person lives to be true to him or herself, not a nation or cultural group? Is identity such an issue or do writers like you just insist on hammering away at it because you can't see yourself as an individual apart from whatever gloomy group you think you need to represent? 

Michael Lindgren's picture
Michael Lindgren · 6 years ago

marvelous essay, truly engaging and stimulating. Well done.


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