I spend a lot of mental energy feeling I have not done enough, wondering what else I’m supposed to do but when I write a poem, all that drops away. I don’t think that means I should just write poetry. That prospect seems ludicrous to me since there are so many better poets and I don’t so much write poems as record them when they come to me as gifts. It’s true they only come when I achieve a certain frame of mind. In that way they seem like rewards from a deity trying to instruct me in the proper attitude: one of receptivity and close attention.
Another aspect of writing poems I find gratifying is the sense of having made something. All my life I’ve been bad at making things. Instinctively, I balked at following instructions and an undertow of fear of inadequacy made my boyhood efforts to fashion an ashtray out of clay or build a makeshift bookshelf halfhearted. One can’t truly fail when one has never given an honest effort. For whatever reason writing a poem bypasses this dilemma.
Perhaps the only thing I’m worse at than making things is fixing them. Around my house I’m known as “Mr. Fix It” because of how famously challenged I am when it comes to tightening a loose bolt or changing out the screen door when the weather gets cold. It’s not genetic. Both my brothers are handy and my youngest can fix or build almost anything. But neither of them is the firstborn son of a father who was even more handicapped in this area than me. His imperious demands that I tackle small, domestic, stereotypically male chores with no instruction and before I was capable, created an outcropping of shame in my psyche that gets triggered whenever I’m expected or required to fix something.
I was largely successful at avoiding these challenges until I got married and we bought our first house. I failed at the simplest tasks. In attempting to change a light switch I repeatedly gouged my hand with a screwdriver after inadvertently removing the screw that had a mechanism to keep it from being removed. The screw was supposed to only be loosened to create room for a wire to be attached but I forced it off and insisted on trying to force it back on. The same mechanism designed to prevent it from being removed was more effective in preventing it from being screwed on.
When I finally relented and faced the shame of my adequacy by going to the hardware store with my bloodied hand wrapped in a torn towel, the owner started to chuckle. Before I could explain what I had done, he told me at least once a month some guy would come in with the same problem. I don’t know if all those other guys felt as unmanly as me but I was starting to get a sense of how tyrannizing my own ideas of manliness could be.
I will always have a deep sense of gratitude to a man who has since become my dear friend. Hap owned and ran a lumberyard before getting into the commercial real estate business. He was the husband of one of my graduate school classmates. He and Lisa moved a block and a half from me and Eileen when we introduced them to our quirky, racially mixed neighborhood in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.
It quickly became evident that Hap knew his way around tools and home improvement projects. Something in his demeanor and my growing sense of humor about my foibles made it safe to reveal my helplessness in this area. He was nonplussed.
Eileen wanted to close off one of the entrances to our bedroom to create additional closet space. For a whole set of other complicated emotional reasons this left me in a catch 22. We did not have the money to hire someone (read male inadequacy), I did not know how to do it (ditto) and she was pregnant (three strikes and you’re out!) Layer on that my commitment, born of my father’s callousness to my mother’s needs, to do whatever I could to please my wife and you have an arena built specifically to test the question of my manliness.
Enter Hap with his matter-of-fact confidence that, with his help, I could do it. Although he never cut a board or hammered a nail, he coached me through every step of the process from design, measurements, construction, sheetrock to finishes.
I vividly remember cutting through wainscoting with a saber saw and hitting something that prevented the saw from cutting any further. There I am on the floor with the saw blade stuck and not knowing what to do. I called Hap and he patiently walked me through analyzing the situation. No I was not about to cut a wire and leave my unborn child fatherless. It might be a nail blocking my way and a blade designed to cut through metal would do the trick or I just may have hit a knot in the wood in which case a little more force and persistence were called for. Sitting on the floor, the phone cradled in my ear while he helped me puzzle over this was the closest thing I had ever felt to being loved by a male peer up to that time.
The irony is I love fixing poems. Each one is a little project and my love for it makes me want to improve it if possible, to help it become more of what it was supposed to be. The sense of a life, deserving to live fully, residing in the poem is palpable for me whereas, the material world seems entirely predetermined and obstinate. As I reflect on this I realize that those who love making and fixing material things might very well sense something animating those materials and through acceptance and surrender to the rules governing their possibilities, breathe life into them.
I’m starting to sense that the question of manliness is not just my personal cross to bear. The tension between the idea of what a man is supposed to be able to do and what is truly possible seems like an unruly dog constantly threatening to misbehave in the lives of most men. The men I most admire and respect are those who handle this tension with a bias away from power and brute force and toward a willingness to live with an ongoing awareness of it. Sometimes that may involve surrender to the rules of physics, the demands of a poem or a higher power however that is conceived.
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Photo: Flickr/Kevin N. Murphy