ETA: There were some problems with the original version of the video. This one should be better. As well, the text of the poems, which contain explicit descriptions of sex and sexual violence, appear below the fold.
On March 5th of this year, I was privileged to perform some of my work, along with a group of other men—including Ben Atherton-Zeman, Bill Bowers, Geof Morgan, and David Linton—as part of the first International Conference on Men and Masculinities. (If you’re interested in the kinds of panels that were presented, you can download the full program here.) Sponsored by Stony Brook’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, which is directed by Michael Kimmel, the conference’s tag line was “Engaging Men and Boys for Gender Equality.” It was an energizing experience. The overall goal of the conference was to create a space where activists and researchers could come together and discuss their needs, concerns, goals, ideas for collaboration, and more. I am very glad, though, that the organizers also made room for the arts throughout the conference—not just at the session where I read, but at the conference banquet, at the opening plenary and more. I hope they will make some of that video, if there is any, available publicly, because it is worth seeing. Meanwhile, thank you for allowing me to share my small part in the conference with you.
The Silence Of Men
A man I’ve never dreamed before walks
into my apartment and sits in the green
chair where I do my writing. He carries
in his left hand a large erect penis
which he places silently on the floor.
The phallus begins to waltz to music
I cannot hear, its scrotum a skirt;
its testicles, legs cut off at the knees.
I want to know why this disfigured
manhood has been brought to me. I look up,
but my guest is gone. His organ, deflating
in short spasms like an old man coughing,
spreads itself in a pool of shallow blood.
The silence between us is the silence of men.
—from The Silence of Men
Working The Dotted Line
I don’t remember what vacation
I was home for, or how Beth
managed to be in New York
on the one day we’d have
the apartment to ourselves,
but I think I recall
my mother’s hanging crystals
scattering the afternoon sunlight
in small rainbows that shimmied
on the walls and on our skin,
and I can still see Beth stretching
nervous along the length
of the daybed’s mattress,
and my fingers tracing
the ridges of her ribs
as she tugged at my erection.
I’m ready. Let’s do it!
It was her first time, not mine,
but it was my first condom,
and I’d forgotten to read the directions,
so I stood there growing soft,
squinting at the print on the box
telling me the step-by-step
I needed to learn
was on the inside.
I ripped the cardboard open
and sat reading on the bed’s edge,
thumbing the foil-packed
trying to visualize
what I had to do.
Beth reached into my lap
to ready me again,
but when I tore along the dotted line,
our protection, like a goldfish
taken by hand from its bowl,
slipped from my grasp
and landed under the desk
my mother sat at
when she paid the bills.
When I picked it up,
it was covered with the dust
and small particles of dirt
that settle daily into all our lives,
so I didn’t put the next one on
till I was kneeling hard
between Beth’s open legs.
She raised herself on her elbows,
smiling that the second skin
we needed to keep us safe
should make me so clumsy,
but once I let go
of what the instructions called
the reservoir tip—I thought
of the dams holding water back
in the mountains near where she lived
and what would happen if they broke—
her smile disappeared
and bunching the sheet beneath her
into her fists, she lifted
her butt onto the pillow
we’d heard would make things easier.
I bent for a quick look
at where I had to go
and climbed up onto her,
trying with one hand
to be graceful and accurate
and with the other
to balance over her
At her first grimace
I pulled back. No!
She shook her head, eyes
clamped shut and then
staring wide, her voice
a whisper through clenched teeth,
Just do it! Get it over with!
So I entered her again, trying
from the tightness in her face
to gauge how hard not to push,
but when she cried out anyway,
I left her body one more time
and crouched over her,
my latex-covered penis
towards her navel,
and I placed my palms
against her cheeks,
I cannot hurt you like this!
Look, it’s going to hurt, she said.
There’s no other way.
And I’ve chosen you!
And since I wanted so much to be her choice,
I kissed her eyelids and her mouth,
and with my eyes buried
in the hollow of her neck
moved slowly in
till I felt her flesh
stop giving way. Then,
with one arm around her rib cage
and the other around her head,
holding her tight against my chest,
I pulled down and thrust up
in a single motion I breathed through
like I was lifting heavy boxes.
She screamed into the muscle
just above my collar bone,
bit deep into my flesh,
and, as she bled onto me,
We said nothing afterwards.
We didn’t cuddle
or smile at each other as we dressed
or walk hand in hand
to the train that took her home;
and I did not ask her
what her silence meant,
nor she mine, but if she had,
I would’ve told her this:
My wordlessness was shame.
I’d no idea how not to hurt her;
and I would’ve told her
I wanted it to do over,
which is what I’d tell her even now.
—from The Silence of Men
These Words Are for Him
—For my son, a kind of prayer
Just before his mother pushed him through herself
hard enough to split who she was
wide enough for him to enter the world,
I touched the top of my son’s head;
and after he was born, the midwife—
Vivian, I think it was—
held my wife’s umbilical cord
in a loop for me to cut, which I did,
freeing our new child’s body
to enter the name we had waiting for him.
Then Vivian laid him
against the curve of his mother’s belly,
lifted him to the breast
and into maternal embrace
he would for years define his world by,
and once that first taste of love
was firmly lodged within him,
she bundled him tight,
placed him in my arms
and, while I sang his welcome
in a far corner of the room,
turned to assist the doctor
sewing up my wife’s birth-torn flesh.
I don’t remember what song I chose,
and it’s been a decade at least
since I’ve told anyone
about my son’s first moments
as my son, but they’ve come to me here,
in this urologist’s waiting room,
because I picked up from the coffee table
this copy of The Nation
another patient must have left behind.
The first article I opened to,
“Silence=Rape,” by Jan Goodwin,
introduced me to Shashir,
six years old and gang raped
in the Congo. When they found her,
she was starving; and when they found her,
she could neither walk nor talk;
and so they stitched together
the parts of her the men had ruptured,
fed her, gave her clothing,
and that night she slept
for the first time since no one knew when
in a bed that was not
the bush the militia had left her to die in;
and maybe the tent walls
shaping the room she lived in
when Goodwin learned she existed
had come to mean for her a kind of safety;
and maybe that safety was fertile ground,
where words for what those men had done to her,
dropped like seeds from the mouths of those who rescued her,
could one day take root in her.
I have not been gang raped,
but a man much older than I was
when I was twelve
forced his penis into my mouth,
seared the back of my throat
with what he poured out of himself
and sealed into silence
everything that took me
fifteen years of pushing
till who I was split wide enough
that who I am
could speak his first true words.
“Mr. Newman?” The nurse,
white, blond, about my age,
calls my name, one of the few
she hasn’t butchered, sitting as I am
among the men of Jackson Heights,
where names that would twist the tongue
of any English speaker are common,
but I’m not yet ready to stop reading.
Maria was seventy when the Interahamwe
tied her legs apart like a goat before slaughter;
and the women Goodwin leaves nameless,
their labia pierced and padlocked
when their rapists finished—
most of them dead or dying from infection
at the time of Goodwin’s writing—
the story belongs to them as well.
I put the magazine down,
bear those women with me
as I rise towards the door I need to walk through
so I can place in this doctor’s hand
the left testicle I found a bump on three days ago.
A few of my fellow patients glance up as I pass.
One of them, smiling, nods his head as if to say,
“Don’t worry. It’ll all work out.”
I smile back, grateful for his small empathy,
notice as I do that the flag pin on his lapel
and the name of the newspaper folded in his lap
place his origin in, or at least his allegiance to,
a country now making headlines for stories like Shashir’s;
and I know this doesn’t happen only over there,
and I know it isn’t only men
with skin darker than mine
who turn into a weapon
this body we share,
and I know no man in this room
has done enough, could ever do enough
to end that. So maybe
this is where we’re supposed to be,
a kind of purgatory
pregnant with poetic justice,
where our penises are just penises,
and our testicles are glands, nothing more.
The door shuts behind me.
The nurse grins, “This way, please,”
leading me in silence
to the room where I will wait.
A four-color poster of my reproductive system
dominates the wall. Its penis, I notice,
unlike mine, includes the foreskin.
The plastic model sitting on the cabinet
does not. I try to remember
to ask the doctor about this,
but when he arrives
my only thought
resembles a prayer.
He snaps on latex gloves;
I let my pants fall to my ankles,
my underwear to just below my knees,
and I watch him handle
what in my wife’s language
are called my tokhm, my eggs.
“It’s probably nothing,” he nods sagely,
stepping back, peeling the rubber off his hands.
I pull my clothing up, tuck in my shirt.
“Still,” he continues—I’m fumbling with my zipper—
“let’s check it again six months from now.”
He offers his hand for me to shake,
then moves on to the next man in the next room.
I head back out the way I came,
where my friend smiles and nods again,
lifting his hand in a farewell
I answer with my own nod and smile,
the reprieve I’ve just gotten
not to assume the worst of anyone.
Outside, the wind rips the hood away from my head;
snow-gusts slap back and forth across my cheeks;
and I am reminded how quickly
beauty turns cold, how easily
death wears friendship’s face.
I want to know how a man who loves his children
does not see their faces in the eyes of the girl
whose vagina he is opening with a bottle or a bayonet;
I want to know why a woman’s screams
beneath the fourth or fifth or eleventh man in line
does not recall for even one of them
the voice of a woman who loves him,
of a woman he has loved.
My son will never know Shashir,
but he will know men who could’ve been,
who’d gladly be, among the ones who violated her;
and he’ll know women,
and other men like me,
who carry violation within them.
A time will come,
because it comes to all of us,
when he’ll be forced to choose
where his allegiance lies.
These words are for him
on the day of that decision.