Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK. The title of the anthology reflects the staggering statistic that suicide takes 84 men each week in the UK. The causes of suicide are many and varied, and you surely have your own opinions about prevention, but one paragraph from Helen Calcutt’s introduction stuck out for me:
“Women cry, men do not. Men hit women, women don’t hit men. Both examples of what we would consider a socially accepted norm, denies either party their natural complexity. Women do hit men, and though a violent and harmful act, it also highlights a particular type of vulnerability (perhaps a trauma too) that needs addressing. Men weep. It’s probably one of the deepest, moving sounds I have ever heard. Denying this as a normal attribute to male behavior, almost refuses them the bog-standard right to grieve, to shed a skin—to let it out.”
In the end, this is a book about grief but also hope. Many of the poems are from people who have experienced loss to suicide, some from those who experience or at least describe the feelings that lead to suicide, and some are about the possibilities for better lives and better approaches to male vitality.
I don’t want to quote or describe the poems as I think it takes from their power for the reader, but this book is not only for a great cause, it is great poetry. If you love poetry, you are likely to see names you recognise, but you may also be delighted to discover fresh talent. As you would expect, the poems are moving, but never maudlin or overly sentimental.
The venerable X. J. Kennedy used a poem about “vile rottenflush”
to illustrate bad poetry in his seminal textbook, Introduction to Poetry.
The poem, he explains, was submitted to the equally venerable Paris Review, but he does not credit (blame?) the author.
The poem about vile rottenflush, he clarifies, is too personal
and subjective to speak to anyone other than the person who wrote it.
He says, “the author has vented personal frustrations upon words,
instead of kicking stray dogs.”
Who am I to question the wisdom of someone
as accomplished as X. J. Kennedy?
I only know that I remember the phrase “vile rottenflush”
four decades after first hearing it. Also, I think the author of “vile rottenflush”
had witnessed a death of someone much loved, and anyone who has watched
the most cherished people in their lives die might understand the poem, after all.
I think this because the poem also mentions “corpseblood” and “ghastly stench.”
No one forgets the smell of a soul leaving the body.
And no one forgets what they see when life is flushed away.
Perhaps “rottenflush” was a novel way of avoiding the now
clichéd references to “putrefying flesh.”
Perhaps it is a way of reminding the readers
That our blood will cease to flow, pulse, and pump,
Only to be left to pool, drip, and stink.
The author of “vile rottenflush” might be accused of being too direct,
But not too personal. Which of us will not overwhelm
Post mortem viewers and handlers with our own
Ghastly stench, reducing them to cries or horror
As they see their fate clearly in our eyes?
America is a land of hyphenated identity—
A melting pot, as it were, of cultural identity.
African-Americans and Asian-Americans, of course,
And gay-, Muslim- and Native-Americans are a force.
But Americans are also Irish, Welsh, and Scottish.
We have Germans and Swedes, but no Americans are English.
Strange, the English travelled to America to set up colonies
Take the land, kill a few million people, and do business in tea.
The English brought the Africans and many other immigrants,
But not one person, it seems, became and English-American.
Today’s Americans think the English lost the Revolutionary War;
The winners were English, too, but no one remembers that far.
So the white Americans who remain are of European descent,
But they are simply called American with no adornment.
Only if they want to declare they come from the original colonists
Will they call themselves Anglo-American with a nod and a sniff.
You sit behind your desk with all the power in the world
That can be contained by these four walls.
You can humanize the experience for whirled
Emotions or you can pretend to be master of laws
You take the latter approach, of course.
Without making me miserable, your life has no meaning
Feeling small, you mount a high horse
And squash any dignity you see gleaming
You’re perfunctory, it goes without saying,
But must you also be so sanctimonious
While you are pedantically conveying
Your need to make this acrimonious?
You have the power over me now, it’s true,
And you know I can’t answer back.
For the time being, I have to eschew
My insults, but I plan a counter attack.
When you get home, you have only the dog to kick,
But you’ve joined me with the anonymous masses
You needled me when I was in a state of near panic,
But we’re now on level ground, paying equally for our trespasses
You’re a one-person version of the Stanford Prison Experiment
And I understand. I’ve also had moments of totalitarian zeal
Our quiet desperation leads us to act to other’s detriment
A momentary, flickering power is all that we wield
When I look at you, I stare into the mirror
We share an existence with no real significance
In this brief power struggle, all becomes clearer
I’m the boulder to your vain Sisyphus
But outside the glare of white walls and white lights
I forget your eyes, your voice, and your power
My planned attack fades like a lost, loveless night
And I sink into the despair of light’s last hour
Someone has found a reason to love you, I imagine
And some fools care about me for one thing or another
This is all we have or will have, my soulless friend,
And that is just enough, or is it?, I wonder.
“Feet don’t fail me now”
Is a mildly amusing witticism
Until your actual feet begin
To fail in the most literal way.
Maybe it’s nerve damage,
An old injury flaring up,
Or the onset of degenerative
Disease. One thing is certain,
Though. You’ll soon join
The ranks of the aged and
Vulnerable. You’ll soon be
Reliant, dependent, despondent.
Your vanishing vitality is fuel
For the fortunate who have
Not realized mortality stalks
Them in the shadows. Their
Optimism will carry you a bit
In my first attempt at this poem, I said
His eyes rose like a green sun,
But I don’t know what I was trying to convey.
Of course the sun isn’t green, and can’t be.
I guess I only meant that his eyes,
A lurid colour of green,
Seemed to burn just above the horizon.
I just wanted to indicate that his eyes were glowing,
Or that they appeared to glow.
And they rose to meet mine,
Just as the sun does,
And that I can’t bear to look into them
Any more than I can stand to stare into the sun.
I think that is what I was getting at.
I meant that his eyes made an impression,
And I will never forget them.
Even after they’ve descended in the western mist,
I will still feel a bit overheated and overexposed
From spending too much time in their glare.
You were always object lesson,
Never role model, and I only knew
I should never be like you.
Your death was early and tragic,
As expected, your last conscious
Moments spent reaching for the door
Of a home engulfed in flame.
Through tear-filled eyes,
Those who had nothing but
Criticism for you when alive
Expressed their own shock and
Grief with a final tinge of judgment.
“If it had anything to do with drugs,
I don’t even want to know,” they sobbed.
At that moment, I think I understood
Both false feeling and blaming the
Victim. No mention of your trauma,
Your alcoholic father, your abuse, or
Your desperate struggle for
Acceptance. For the first time,
Fertility varies from place to place.
In my hometown, cilantro would take over
The yard if you weren’t careful. Some
People don’t like the smell, but I loved
The fragrant flood of mulch and pollen
Whenever I mowed. (It was the only joy
I found in mowing.) A cilantro haze
Always encircled by volunteer chilis
Standing as spicy sentinels guarding
The perimeter of the lawn with indifference.
In other places, the peppers and coriander
Do not volunteer but must be coaxed
From the soil with care and determination.
You must remember to bring them inside
During the cold months (and most are).
A grow light helps, too, one would think,
But the natural growth and abundance
Of abandoned plants has left me.
And could anything be more appropriate?
My own vitality, once uncontrolled and
Forever stretching to new patches of
Fertile soil must now be coaxed awake
Each day and issues a constant threat
Of “failure to thrive.” My arthritic hands
And semi-repaired bones strain to put
New seeds in fecund ground and wait for
Life to emerge each spring. But still
The light, the air, the soil trigger some
Urge, some will to unfurl once more.