Monday, November 20, 2017

Disrupting the Macho-Man from Within and Without

Ezra Pound’s poem Erat Hora, the magical powers of woman beheld:

‘Thank you, whatever comes. And then she turned
And, as the ray of sun on hanging flowers
Fades when the wind hath lifted them aside,
Went swiftly from me. Nay, whatever comes
One hour was sunlit and the most high gods
May not make boast of any better thing
Than to have watched that hour as it passed. 

The woman, beheld, holds the gaze. She has power over nature and time. She makes an impression on the mind of the male poet who would give anything to have it back.

Helen of Troy with the Face that Launched a Thousand Ships.

I have spent my life in books, wondering if that is who I am (not Helen of Troy but perhaps some lesser woman who might be described as thick-waisted but effervescent!). Am I the wife in Jonathan Franzen’s Precious? Not the daughter. Certainly not the hot sex-having woman who dies in the car crash. To be a woman is to be shaped by margins on a page, by a paint knife against the palette, by the return key on the typewriter. Behold Behold. We can see the woman. Here are the words—it only takes a few—to describe her.

In Ms. Aligned 2, edited by Connie Pan, Pat Matsueda, and Rebecca Thomas, published by Léon Press in Berkeley, the collection of stories and poems take a turn at punctuating maleness. They shape soft clay. They put the male in the female gaze and behold him. So many stories and poems in a row about men almost normalize this change in mode. If it weren’t what I had been reading for, I may not have entirely noticed.

In these two books, the men are on stage and meant to be the ones asking “Is that how women see me? Am I forever being seen?” The stories and poems in Ms. Aligned behold the man.

Men as Stereotype and Interrupters of Stereotype:  But then breaks the cliché with attention paid to her number of bracelets and admission of his impotence.  
“I’m a little embarrassed to have her looking over my shoulder. I wonder if she will mock my fabric softener. She doesn’t.”
“I’m cleaning my cell phone when she calls, like I had just wiped the plastic in order to see her name light up the screen, unstreaked and shining (18).

Men as subject of artistry/of curiosity: “Can I hang out at your garage? Take notes? Study the culture.”
“The guys don’t have much culture to speak of,” I say, trying to make a joke of it. “No, but you are your own culture. That’s what I’m trying to say.” It’s starting to be more than uncomfortable, the discomfort in my chest.
“You want to study me?” I say. “Do a report. it’s called an ethnography. I just want permission to enter your space. Act like I’m not there.”
“That,” I say, “would be impossible.”
“Come on,” she says. “I can blend in. Be a participant observer.”
“This is your homework? Writing about being a mechanic?”
“Why not?”(21)

See how the gaze changes: Even when the male protagonist is attempting to behold the woman, the woman in these stories behold back:
Francisco Romero caught a glimpse of her before she disappeared down his street. in his living room, he sat reading the morning’s paper and sensed that someone was watching. His eyes left the news about the Angels’ trade—an outfielder, useless; they needed a second baseman— and shifted to his window. He saw her staring at his boarded-up home as she walked away, and he watched her for as long as the window let him, following her as she passed the vacant dirt lot next door. She kept glancing back as she walked, and he wondered if his house had been tagged somehow and he didn’t know it, that he was losing his sixth sense for graffiti” (26).

In “Sex Education: A Tragicomedy in Seven Years,” by Angelina Nashimoto are seven stories about how a woman resists being the sex object—even sometimes becomes the sex object.
He took my hand and we walked to the front door. He put his hand on the back of my neck to kiss me again, but I exhaled through my mouth on his face. “Whoa!” he said. “Your breat’ stink!” I pressed my lips together, over my decayed front teeth—gotten from jumping on the bed and falling face-first onto the cold, tiled floor of my bedroom. He flung my hand away and stomped off into the house. i stayed behind, kicking at the coral chips like I wanted to kick at his ‘ֿkole” (42).

Amy Holwerda’s “Gardenia,” the man takes his wife place as caretaker, a role he cannot sustain:
Saul sat almost peacefully staring at the aquarium in the waiting room, watching the neon fish cut their way through the water. When the blonde nurse entered the room, Saul wanted to tell her to sit down. Pour herself a cup of coffee. He knew what she was going to say, and that he wouldn’t be able to stop her. He swallowed hard and nodded.  An ambulance was there in minutes. Henrietta’s eyes rolled back in her head, eyelashes fluttering. “Oh, Henny,” Saul said. He patted her cheek with a shaking hand” (52).

Adele Ne Jame, in Grief, an evolving, behold a beauitufl man.  
Dreaming in Arabic, flying red clouds
hang over the high Chouf village.
A young boy dresses early by lamp light,
does his morning chores in the cold sun.
Leaning heavily into the cedar wind,
he lugs fire wood into the kitchen
to keep the heat going.

And finally, men achieve supreme woman-status and become metaphor in Angela Nishimoto’s poem, Start with Mustard:

Young men green as wasabi,
the freshening causing your nose to run.
You sip green tea to cease the flow.

Steven Church’s studies of maleness are not metaphors. Church swings the camera around to himself. He’s fully aware of how males perform maleness. What he does uniquely is to show how the male defines himself within and against that performance. His methodical investigations about a man, himself, and how he became that way beholds maleness differently than the women writers in Ms. Aligned. To watch a male writer behold how men shape themselves, how the narrator describes perceiving his own masculinity shaped in comparison to other men, his father, and especially after he becomes a father.  

In I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: Essays on Work, Fear, and Fatherhood from Outpost 19,
work and fatherhood are traditional male territories but fear isn’t usually. The book opens with an understanding that being a “man” is kind of a goal and the manliest man might be a Western Man: “This is 1995 and I want to be a mountain man, a pioneer of sorts.  As Church leads us through his young desire to be a mountain man, to live free in the west, giving tours of old mines to travelers coming to find out exactly what a mountain man is, Church mostly describes the fear of the roof falling in on his head and the fear of losing his girlfriend, who remained back east, not so invested in becoming a mountain man, or any kind of man, herself.   Church supplies the tour spiel as footnotes, undergirding some of the macho-ness required to perform this job. “We’re standing at 10,500 feet above sea level. You may have felt the burn in your lungs when you walked up from the parking lot. First things first. A few terms you might want to know. (You did not abandon her. This is just something you have to do. It’s about you as a person, as an individual. It’s about you as a man.)” (2).

Some traditional guy behavior remains preserved: Doug never stops working to make it a reality. Ever. He lives to work. Tall and thin with unruly hair, he’s always confident, always upbeat, never openly worried about anything—business, progress, cave-ins, etc. But he also has a way of looking right through me sometimes, as if I’m just a spare part in a machine he’s trying to fix. Doug is one of those dreamers and schemers, never satisfied with one thing, one project, one hobby or habit—eternally spiritually restless” (7).  

Church doesn’t undercut everything about manliness, just the signature moves that signal archetypal and stereotypical male performance.    “’Yeah sure, whatever,” he says and shuffles down to the stream. Buck picks up a pan and walks right out into the water. I look up at Doug and he just smiles. Buck crouches down in the stream and begins to instruct the two kids next to him how to properly swirl the water in their pans such that they won’t lose any gold. “No, it’s like this,” he says. I watch him, worried what the parents might think; but they’re gazing at Buck with a bemused look on their faces. Tourists absolutely love Buck—at least from a distance. He seems so mythical to them, straight out of a storybook. He’s not bizarre, he’s eccentric. He’s not stinky and dirty, he’s seasoned and weathered” (13) but end “I’d say we should pay him to hang around the Country Boy, but he’s a paranoid misogynistic misanthrope who smells like swamp ass; and once the reality of Buck inevitably clashed completely with the storybook picture of Buck, I don’t think the tourists would find him so romantic. (13)  Church’s parentheticals direct the reader to perform his manliness instead of his real sense of fear, emotion, or identification with death.

What I love about this book is that Church is constantly willing to undermine that machismo by poking fun at traditions and the way we behold men, women, natural phenomena, landscape postcards: In the laser-enhanced postcards we sell at the gift shop, the sky is always a brilliant laser-enhanced blue and the crater looks something like the giant puckered rectum of planet Earth (44).

Of course, the search for the real man behind the performative man fall apart like most Westerly dreams:  I keep thinking we’re going to find something  else here, some hidden vein of good we can tap into. But Kenny, the former fireman, won’t stop talking about the tubule pregnancy his girlfriend had. He wants to gloat about drinking beer and balling Indian chicks in his pickup. Sam the ticket guy raises pigeons in Winslow and he’s never seen the Grand Canyon.” (50-51)

The spiel from the “manly” tour goes like this: Today we’ve used it to display some beer cans left by the Apollo astronauts. That’s right, Coors beer was crucial to their training. Feel free to take a look at the astronaut’s beer cans, but keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. They sometimes like to curl up in the shade there. (56) 

But the narrator, with real human emotion, freaks out when, working in Colorado as a Maintenance Man, a renter calls him to come scoop blood out of a clogged bathtub drain:    What sort of future husband or father runs off in the middle of the night to help a stranger get blood out of his bathtub? But for some reason I don’t want to hear this. I just want to follow the impulse. I just want the certainty of this work. 67 And in the end, he runs away from the blood into the essay he calls “Chicken Exit.” I figured that marriage and graduate school would be my excuse to leave the Blue Valley of Colorado, that it’d be my chicken exit from this rollercoaster way of life. (76) 

In the second of I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part, in the eponymous essay, Church moves on from single man manliness to husbandly and fatherly manliness.
Let me tell you what I don’t know at this point in my story: I will be afraid of water. It will happen a few years from here. This will be a new fear that develops unexpectedly, and it will be hard for me even to admit, difficult to reconcile with my childhood love of water.

The fears build as the imagination builds as his children are born and encounter more dangers. But then of course, doesn’t the full impulse of manliness take over. Protecting the wife and child? Church gets that and then turns it on his head.

A rapist is terrorizing the Breckenridge neighborhood where Church and his wife live:  
“What if he had been the rapist, and he was searching for an open door? What if I hadn’t been home to protect my wife? I called the police and told them that I had just chased a man out of my yard but that I didn’t think he was the rapist. “I think he’s just a drunk college student,” I told them. “He’s probably harmless,” I said. Probably someone else’s kid. Just trying to find his way home. “Probably,” the voice said.103  Strangely enough I wasn’t so worried about what she might have done. Instead what worried me—frightened me actually--was how quickly, coolly, and rationally I had decided that I could destroy anyone or anything that threatened my son. He was just two days old. I was just barely a father, still green. But some instinct clicked inside and I knew, as soon as I heard that doorknob rattling, that I could kill to protect him from harm.” “105” 

Church hikes, somewhat fearfully, as he recalls the story about the toddler boy he once heard about who may have been attacked by a mountain lion. He may be able to kill another man in a suburb but could he protect his son in the forest from a coulgar?  
Mountain lions. Big cats. This was something new, something I hadn’t predicted. We might have moved out of the city but we’d also leaped into the lion’s territory and moved into a lower status on the food chain. The attack tales--people pounced upon, eaten, mauled, etc.—haunted me.108  Toddlers love the woods because it’s so easy to get lost. Too easy perhaps. It feels safe, comforting, and distant from the obvious evils and dangers of civilization. The group of adults assumed Jaryd had joined the other group ahead, that he simply chose another circle of safety. But he didn’t. He never made it to them. Nobody knows for sure what happened. He just disappeared. Massive search efforts, lasting days, weeks, months, turned up nothing. No evidence. No tracks. No signs of struggle. No blood. No nothing. At least for a few years. Then they found him. Or parts of him.  (112)

 And he can’t protect his own son from bombs or falling airplanes or terrorism or uns:  On To my two-year-old son, born into a post 9/11 world, the recent elevation of the terrorism threat-level to orange did not mean much. Orange did not make him more vigilant at the mall with his mom. 122 

But maybe the thing Steven Church can’t protect himself from is the performance of manliness itself, the non-innocent demonstrations of machoness:  “I freaked my sister out,” he [some random guy Church is walking the kids to school with] said, gesturing toward me with the fruit baggie. The children had already begun streaming out the doors, single-file, gravitating toward parents or guardians, gathering on the grass to wait. “I poured salt on a block of dry ice,” he said over the chaotic noise of children. “Watch,” he’d said to his sister. “Wait for it.” And the deer did come. Two of them. Put their tongues to the salt. Stuck there, they pulled against the dry ice. Anchored to the lick, they strained to break free. And I wanted to tell him to stop. “And my sister was like, ‘What are you going to do 167 to them?” I could see the deer pulling on their tongues, practically yanking them from their skulls. Panicked, they must have strained against their own anchor. The other father handed his daughter the fruit baggie, “Here you go, honey,” he said and then he finished his lesson: “And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not doing nothing,’ and that’s when I slit their throats.”  

As Ms. Aligned 2 shows, it’s fascinating to turn paradigms on their head. And, perhaps even more fun it is, as Church does, marking your place in well-defined paradigms and then vigorously bucking against them.