People overstate the importance of first impressions. It’s possible to change your impressions of someone, for better or worse, on second or third impressions. It is even possible to change your mind about someone after 25 years. I’m sure of all that, but some people sure do make memorable first impressions.
Sharon pretty much introduced herself to me by saying, “Well, I’m a Black bisexual woman who just wants to make trouble and maybe help make a better world.” Some people would say that for shock effect, but I don’t think she really cared about that. She just liked to vet new friends. It’s sort of like those signs that say, “You must be this tall to get on this ride.” If you were bothered by her introduction, then she didn’t need to waste any more time on you.
As far as I could tell, she loved life. She loved men and women. She loved humanity. Somehow, the world can’t accommodate people like that, though. Some of us just never find a safe place. One day she would talk about all the drama women cause. The next day she would lament all the baggage Black men bring on dates with them. What’s the difference between anger, fear, grief, or love?
Blame the structure of the world. Blame biology. Blame the devil. Do what you want, but it is hard for some of us to feel connected to anything. It’s like that Jimmy Cliff line about how loneliness would never leave him alone. You know, we’re all in this together—it’s just that we seem unable to share the burden of that, so we’re all seekers.
So, anyway, at her funeral, her aunt gets up and tells all the family and other busy bodies that no one knows where Sharon is now but Sharon and God, and no one else even needs to worry about it, so just shut your mouth and show a little respect. I guess some people think Heaven is a hotel that rejects people who couldn’t find safe shelter on Earth. Some people believe in a God that locks the door for his most sensitive children.
I guess that’s just our nature. We all want to feel we’re blessed. We want to feel protected in the end. We’re not like the others, somehow. Flannery O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpin had this vision of good Christian folks like herself having their virtue “being burned away” as they descended into Hell while her inferiors sang and praised their way into Heaven. Some of us find out we are like the others before it is too late. Some of us don’t.
Sometimes life just smacks you in the face. You’re just minding your own business and out of nowhere comes a big punch to the gut, or, yeah, a slap to the face or whatever. This mostly happens when you’re young. By the time you reach a certain age, if you are so lucky to live that long, you’ll be punch drunk enough, trust me.
Anyway, that’s why she couldn’t believe her rabbit was dying. No, she wasn’t pregnant or anything—her pet rabbit was riddled with tumors and needed to be put down. She’d never lost anyone that close before, and the tears came in waves. She was inconsolable, as you are when you lose something precious.
So she called her mother for comfort, which is a pretty reasonable thing to do, even for someone who is technically grown up and fully adult. Relying on mothers for comfort is a habit many of us never break until fate forces our hand on the matter. She called her mother and told her the devastating news, but her mother wasn’t really as sympathetic as she had expected, so she was a little crestfallen for a minute.
Her mother listened for a minute or two to the tears and lamentations before saying, “You go on like this for your rabbit when you know I have cancer, too?”
It was true that her mother had cancer and she definitely knew about it, but she was still naïve enough to believe doctors could save lives. She had heard of people surviving cancer, so she assumed her mother would be one of those, not one of the unlucky people you hear about in other families. We’re always pretty sure the worst things won’t happen to us, aren’t we?
She would be sadder and wiser soon enough, and maybe the rabbit served as a kind of omen or preparation for what was to come. Maybe it would help her get through the days, months, and years ahead. When you look back on things, it’s hard to say what helped or didn’t as you can’t imagine how bad things might have been otherwise. Trauma and grief can be pretty all consuming, you know, and your imagination for other possible worlds disappears.
You’re just sort of stuck, boxed in, and frozen.
Anyway, that’s how it all started. Tests, promising results, surgeries, promising outcomes, more tests, different doctors, different hospitals, different promises, and different prognoses were all to follow. Sure, the best of us indulge in magical thinking or just wishful thinking, anything to not indulge in despair, even when despair is rationally the correct choice. You pretend that rabbit cancer is categorically different from human cancer. You pretend doctors are magicians. You just get on with it.
Or sometimes you don’t. You decompensate. You look for comfort in anonymous sex, “mood altering” substances, or purely defiant denial. And you’re done for. Death keeps coming, and you find out you’re strong enough to face it down. I know, some people aren’t strong enough to face it down, but anyone reading this has been strong enough so far, so you’ve been strong for a long time.
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?
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,
She spotted him across the bar,
And her pulse quickened.
She wasn’t surprised to see him;
She knew he would be here,
But she stepped outside to finish
The joint she had started earlier.
After a few long drags, she
Went back in, downed a
Shot of tequila, and walked over.
She looked him straight in the eye,
Took his hand, and led him outside.
She firmly guided him to a dark spot,
Stared blankly into the dark, and
Unzipped his pants. He was full
Of confidence. “She couldn’t get
Enough, eh? Had to come back
For more of the good stuff.”
She was numb.
He was nothing.
He meant nothing.
It meant nothing.
It was only mechanical.
She wasn’t damaged.
She was strong,
Because she could
No longer feel.
If anyone accused him of
He would say,
“If she didn’t like it,
Why’d she come back for more?”