What does it mean to be a man? In its way, as fascinating a topic as the age-old muse of many a poet: death. I was struck by this thought while reading Tony Hoagland’s 1998 collection (for the first time!), Donkey Gospel.
While in the book, wondering if the title had anything to do with what asses we are (a variation of Mark Twain’s fist-shaking at “the damned human race”), I came across “The Replacement.”
This poem, ostensibly about Hoagland’s brother and what it means to come of age as a “man” in America (oh, hell, anywhere really) struck me because it does what good poetry should do–it speaks on two levels, the concrete particular and the abstract in-general.
Man or woman, the reader reads the poem, hits the spot-on finish, and nods, “Yes! That’s it. This captures something I myself know, either from personal experience or from witnessing someone else’s experience.”
Better yet, Hoagland doesn’t preach. He simply lays his brother’s experience out and leaves it to the reader to decide: Good? Bad? Necessary? Unnecessary? Somewhere in between?
In case you haven’t read it yet, you can enjoy its bittersweet truths here. And if you have read it, enjoy anew. Poetry begs rereading more than any other genre, which only adds to the mystery of why so many otherwise-stalwart readers avoid it.
And across the country I know
they are replacing my brother’s brain
with the brain of a man:
one gesture, one word, one neuron at a time
with surgical precision
they are teaching him to hook his thumbs
into his belt, to iron his mouth as flat
as the horizon, and make his eyes
reflective as a piece of tin.
It is a kind of cooking
the male child undergoes:
to toughen him, he is dipped repeatedly
in insult–peckerwood, shitbag, faggot,
pussy, dicksucker–until spear points
will break against his epidermis,
until his is impossible to disappoint.
Then he walks out into the street
ready for a game of corporate poker
with a hard-on for the Dow-Jones
like this hormonal language I am
flexing like a bicep
to show who’s boss.
But I’m not the boss.
And there is nothing I can do to stop it,
and would I if I could?
What else is there for him to be
except a man?
If they fail,
he stumbles through his life
like an untied shoe.
If they succeed, he may become
something even I can’t love.
Already the photograph I have of him
is out of date
but in it he is standing by the pool
without a shirt: too young, too white, too weak,
with feelings he is too inept to hide
splashed over his face–
goofy, proud, shy,
he’s smiling at the camera
as if he were under the illusion
that someone loved him so well
they would not ever ever ever
turn him over to the world.