Dispelling the Myth of Masculinity: Ross Gay and Paul Martínez Pompa

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Ross Gay is a Cave Canem fellow and a recipient of a grant from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts. In addition to being a book artist, a basketball coach and an editor with chapbook press Q Avenue, Ross teaches poetry at Indiana University in Bloomington and in the low-residency M.F.A. program at Drew University.

The speakers in Ross Gay’s Against Which and Paul Martínez Pompa’s My Kill Adore Him are not afraid to step into taboo territory. They’re not afraid to question or dare anyone: “What-chu gonna do now?[1]

Whether choking out a drunk[2] or stepping to sucker mcs[3], they don’t back out of situations in which they find themselves. But the speakers are neither meat heads nor neighborhood bad asses holding down their blocks.

There’s tenderness in how they engage the environment around them that dispels the myth of masculinity hovering over young boys trying to understand what it means to be a man in the world. After reading both collections, another thing becomes clear: the speakers aren’t wimps, but guys liberated in knowing they don’t have to live up to the myth.

The overall tone in Against Which shifts from joyful and sarcastic, to sad and angry, to humorous and sincere. I heard that sincerity in Gay’s opening poem, “Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street,” where the speaker, who’s driving, is distracted by a scene on the street. I was brought into the poem by these physical details:

you, too, would’ve nearly driven into oncoming traffic

for gawking at the clutch between the two men

on Broad Street, in front of the hospital,

which would not stop, each man’s face

so deeply buried in the other’s neck—these men

not, my guess, to be fucked with—squeezing through

that first porous layer of the body into the heat beneath.[4]

(IMAGE: CavanKerry Press)

Right there, the speaker not only sets up the scene, but gets into the taboo issue of public displays of affection between men without being judgmental. In a homophobic society, where the country is divided on the issue of gay rights, the men in the poem don’t have to be lovers. The act of them embracing each other publicly is enough to set off alarms in the most conservative of individuals.

In Gay’s poem, the speaker also dispels the myth of masculinity. These aren’t small men, according to the speaker, but men “not…to be fucked with.” These are men with “burly fingers.”

When I think about what it means to be a man—how we’re expected not to look weak, or show any sign of emotion—I’m thankful my dad showed me I didn’t have to live up to that myth. I remember when he came home from rough days at work as a master electrician—days that sometimes had him in the cold, hammering a metal spike into the earth to ground the new panel box service he installed in customer’s house—and embrace my mom in front of my brother, sister and me as if he couldn’t wait to get back to the tender things in his world.

My dad wasn’t bothered by what people thought about his public displays of affection he expressed to his sons, kissing us on our cheeks and hugging us when he dropped us off at school. If the kids taunted us for that show of affection, Dad would tell us they were misguided. My brother and I grew up, knowing it was OK to be tender in public. Even now, standing at 6-foot-2, I hug my best guy friends publicly if we’re out and they drop some news of family affairs or something else that’s got them down.

There’s something liberating about not buying into the myth. The speaker sees that same liberation in the two men hugging on a busy street, “their burly fingers squeezing the air from angels/ on the backs of their denim jackets.”

That moment between the two men is intensified by these psychological details:

[…]I float unaware of the 3000 lb machine

in my hands drifting through a stop light while I gawked

at their ceaseless cleave go deeper,

[…] so that Broad Street from Fairmount

to the Parkway reeked of the honey-scented wind

pushed from the hummingbirds now hovering above these two men,

sweetening, somehow, the air until nectar,

yes, nectar gathered at the corners of my mouth like sun-colored spittle,

the steel vehicle now a lost memory […][5]

(PHOTO: Unknown)

There are musical moments in Gay’s other poems, “Unclean. Make Me” and “Alzheimer’s.” In “Unclean. Make me,” the speaker rejects the notion of some religions that consider women on their cycles to be unclean. Here are some musical lines: “Lay tongue/ to the lathe, the blessed lather[6].” Saying those lines aloud, and feeling my tongue tap out the rhythm, made me think of xylophones. In that sense, Gay is Roy Ayers working those lines, where the “L” sounds are high notes mixed in with the alliteration of “T” sounds—“tongue/to the”—or low notes.

Gay’s poem is also musical here: “Song like marble spun/ into silk[7].” There are two trochaic feet in “Song like marble,” and I imagined someone pounding on a large marching drum. “Spun/ into silk,” which moves fast, made me think of drumsticks rapidly rapping a snare drum.

The musical moments intensified the playful tone of the speaker in “Unclean. Make me,” allowing him to delicately flip the notion of what it means to be unclean.

“Alzheimer’s” was a poem that hit close to home because my grandmother suffered from it before she died. I remember my grandmother asking who I was, and shaking her head with a lost look when I tried to explain. In that poem, the speaker’s grandmother’s memories are “cherry blossoms” loosened by the “breeze,” or disease[8].

There’s a musical moment when the speaker describes how the “petals” are whisked away: “flipping through her open arms[9].” That line is trochaic tetrameter, with the last foot missing an unaccented syllable. Reading those lines, I got a fluttering feeling, that feeling of something being blown beyond reach. For the speaker’s grandmother, it’s whatever memories she has left of her family.

As I stated earlier, there are moments in both Against Which and My Kill Adore Him, where the speakers are brave without being obnoxious. The best example of that is Gay’s poem, “Broken Mania”:

(PHOTO: PowerLlama on flckr)

This is not a joke

when I wrap my hand tight

around the drunk man’s throat,

the drunk who heaves his girlfriend

around the Chevy, while she begs

no and please and the pub’s other drunk men

won’t be bothered because the Flyers play

the Red Wings in game 2 for the cup.

This, Drunk Man, is not a joke, and when

I left my pal’s house for some hot tea

at 7-11 I did not know that we would meet,

but meet we did, intimates we have become, I would say,

what with that gurgling noise slurping

about in your throat. And your girlfriend clutches my

arm, wide-eyed and sad, not sure for whom

she roots, but she knows her duty, where

she sleeps. This is not a joke,

Drunk Man. If the time and place

were right, you would have been dead, your tongue

yanked out and nailed to your forehead, but the time

(PHOTO: Telegraph.co.uk)

was not right, bouncers tore me from you,

and I was wearing bear slippers, big, furry,

with soft claws. Maybe

I was too self-conscious to finish the job.

Maybe it was my friend at my side,

just released from a funny farm for a psychotic

episode, whispering and quaking. That’s enough,

that’s enough. You did not

know this about me, or my friend, did not

know the previous day his hand dug

hard into my shoulder from the car’s back

seat as we approached another hospital, pleading

Please don’t let them

do this to me. Don’t do

this to me. That he hasn’t

slept in five days and is wired, told me

things I can’t repeat for fear of my tongue

turning black rot and infecting my brain,

that it has nothing to do with samaritinism, the woman,

or humanity, this Drunk Man, is about me,

(IMAGE: Deviant Art)

about me shrinking your universe

around your throat like a noose, showing you that

to you, at this second, I am God,

and until my friend’s mania is broke

my arm melts rocks and is a machine

for murder[10].

The physical details that had me in the 7-11 parking lot, watching the speaker choke out a drunk man who tosses “his girlfriend/ around the Chevy.” I could hear the loud TV from a nearby bar, where the other drunk men are too caught up in the Flyers and “Red Wings game 2 for the cup” to notice the woman yelling “no and please,” and what happened when the speaker came to her rescue.

The speaker’s use of person shifts, regarding the drunken man. I was already in the scene, somewhere amidst the onlookers. But when the speaker shifted from third to second person, that switch was a zoom button that brought me closer to the incident. I could see the drunk’s girlfriend grabbing the speaker’s arm, “wide-eyed and sad, not sure for whom/ she roots, but knows her duty, where/ she sleeps.”

(ARTWORK: 8tracks.com)

There are two tones in “Broken Mania”—anger for the drunk and sincerity for the drunk’s girlfriend. The speaker is sincere without being judgmental of the woman. The speaker’s anger is intensified by these psychological details: “[…] If the time and place/ were right, you would have been dead, your tongue/ yanked out and nailed to your forehead […]”

There are musical moments in the midst of the violence. Take the repetition of “This is not a joke”: “This is not a joke/ when I wrap my hand tight/ around the drunk man’s throat/ […] This, Drunk Man, is not a joke […]/This is not a joke,/ Drunk Man. If the time and place/ were right, you would be dead […]”

The repetition intensified the seriousness of the situation. The first “This is not a joke” does not address Drunk Man, but the reader. The second and third time the speaker addresses Drunk Man directly. I felt the tension build with each “This is not a joke.”

The repetition also worked as the speaker’s way of drumming the message in all men, not just Drunk Man. It’s a message that says: Beating women is neither funny nor entertaining. To the women beaters, it’s a message for them to stop doing it and seek counseling. To the men, in general, it’s a message that says: if you see a domestic dispute, don’t ignore it.

Like the poem “Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street,” “Broken Mania” also deals with redefining manhood and dispelling the myth of masculinity. In redefining manhood, the message is clear: beating women does not make you a man. The speaker’s act of choking the drunken man says indirectly that only weak men hit women.

(PHOTO: Alex Slitz/Daily News/AP)

In “Broken Mania” the speaker also dispels the myth of masculinity by making note of what he’s wearing. In another time, and a different circumstance, “wearing bear slippers, big, furry/ with soft claws” would not be considered manly. But given the situation, where the speaker has another man fighting for his life, I doubt anyone would make fun of the speaker’s slippers to his face.

The turn in Gay’s poem is when the speaker’s friend—“just released from a funny farm for a psychotic/ episode”—is introduced (I enjoyed the alliteration of that line—“from a funny farm for”). After that, it became clear that the situation in the parking lot was not the point of the poem; while the subject is an important one, it sets up the reader for another issue: mental illness.

Like the woman in that 7-11’s parking lot, the speaker’s friend is also victimized. But, unlike the drunken man, the illness is not someone the speaker’s able to shove around and tell him to knock it off; the speaker’s helpless when his friend says, “Please don’t let them/ do this to me. Don’t do/ this to me.” So out of frustration, he takes out his displaced anger on any physical target available at the time, which also reveals the speaker. “It has nothing to do with samaritinism, the woman,/ or humanity, this, Drunk Man, is about me […]”

So what was first thought to be an act of sincerity was, instead, the speaker using force—“shrinking your universe/ around your throat like a noose”—to make up for his feeling of helplessness. I’m left wondering had the speaker’s friend not been mentally ill, would he still have stuck up for the abused woman?

An overlapping theme in both Gay’s and Martínez Pompa’s collections is manhood. Take Martínez Pompa’s poem, “Film Strip,” that opens his My Kill Adore Him. The guys are in a sex education class, “isolated from the girls/ to learn our bodies.” Here are the physical details that brought me into that classroom:

(PHOTO: latinopoetryreview.blogspot.com) Paul Martínez Pompa lives in Chicago and teaches composition, poetry and creative writing at Triton College in River Grove, Illinois.

[…] Our desk harder

than our hairless asses. They shudder

beneath us when Mr. Griffey fingers

the 16mm reel […]

[…] We swell

Into concentration as grainy scenes

flicker past our heads. The projector’s

clatter surrounds us like criminals:

narrated cross-section of the testicles[11].

There’s a sexual energy woven through Martínez Pompa’s poem:  the students’ “hairless asses” that “shudder beneath” them “when Mr. Griffey fingers/ the 16mm reel,” and how they “swell into concentration”. I remember being both scared and excited while learning about my body and the physical changes that would occur as part of my development.

I love the music of “clatter surrounds us like criminals,” a dactylic trimeter, with three perfect feet. Saying that line aloud made me think of the break down in a song, when the beats seem to cascade in a falling rhythm.

Thinking of what that line means—“clatter surrounds us like criminals”—the falling rhythms intensified the speaker’s suspicious tone, as if the class were ambushed by what they saw the way criminals ambush their victims. That the “grainy scenes” flickering past the speaker’s head were likened to criminals shows how intrusive those scenes were, especially those that triggered a memory of another unpleasant moment:

The animated penis a cruel reminder

of our fathers. Strange men we’ve seen

through cracked doors. Their nude

bodies a revelation, a portrait of manhood

larger than anything we could imagine[12].

(PHOTO: Searchamelia.com)

I stated earlier what it means to be a man in the world—how we’re expected not to look weak, or show any sign of emotion—and, like my dad, the speaker in Martínez Pompa’s poem, “Clamor,” doesn’t buy into that myth.

In “Clamor,” the speaker’s on a bus when he notices the lovers, and is overwhelmed with longing. Here are the psychological details that brought me inside the speaker’s head: “remember when we were young./ bold enough to love that hard. trust was our eyes. closed./ our mouths undoing each other’s. bodies.”

That “the bus fills and empties like an aluminum lung[13]” gives a sense of what’s happening during the ride besides the couple, and how frequent the stops were since—like a lung takes in air as fast as it pushes it back out—the bus gets packed almost as fast as it empties.

That line is musical with the repetition of “L” sounds—“[…] like an aluminum lung”. Saying that line aloud gave me that feeling of xylophones that I felt earlier in Ross Gay’s poem, “Unclean. Make Me”. That fluid movement in Martínez Pompa’s poem made me feel like a passenger on that bus, working my way through an aisle of folks staring, with the speaker, at the couple and “how. she breathes him. how he is / draped in the orchestra of her. fingers.”

The title, “Clamor,” is defined as 1) “any loud and continued noise,” or 2) “a vehement”—intense—“expression of desire or dissatisfaction.” The word appears twice in Martínez Pompa’s poem, each one with a different meaning and level of intensity. There’s the first definition in “the clamor of. gears. bodies.” and “words” that intensified the sound on the bus. I felt the seat vibrating from the loud engine that drowned out the words of the couple, who were “untouched/ by this. city of broken lovers”.

(PHOTO: Dcist.com)

The second definition of clamor—as an intense “expression of dissatisfaction”—is in “youth & desire fleeing/ their seats” at the sight of the lovers. This intensified the passengers’ dissatisfaction of the couple’s public display of affection.

That the other passengers, including the speaker, are residents in the “city of broken lovers” made me wonder three things: 1) if the passengers have been burned by love enough to where the “L” word’s almost as taboo as the public display of affection expressed in Ross Gay’s poem, “Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street”; 2) if the lovers existence broke the rules of that “city”; and 3) if, in that “city,” the lovers were tourists passing through, or were they trespassing.

The Martínez Pompa poem that captures the themes of the collection as a whole—manhood, love, and tensions between ethnicities—while displaying the tenderness with which both speakers in Against Which and My Kill Adore Him approach the world is “Pulling Tongue”:

(PHOTO: Stock)

Lissette opens me with her fingers.

I struggle to breathe

with  her tongue in my mouth.

Suddenly we are stars

in a Mexi-Rican romance film

that unravels on her aunt’s stoop.

Backlit by the flickering streetlamp

an audience of boys forms

and I feel the pressure to comply.

Catcalls & uneasy laughter,

I kiss harder. My finger stutters

Over her knee, her thigh—

You fuckin Mexicans kiss like girls

as she slaps my arm,

the crash of the metal storm

door behind her. The boys

swell into a mob set to detonate

the entire block. I rise

& brace myself for their eyes,

their bodies that wet the night.[14]

(PHOTO: thedigicult)

The musical moment happens in the last line of the first stanza and the beginning of the second stanza. The repetition of “S” sounds—“Suddenly we are stars/ in a Mexi”—and “R” sounds—“Rican romance film”—conjured up the image of maracas; I could hear the beads shaken to the rhythm of those lines.

That they “are stars/ in a Mexi-Rican romance” is a clue to the reader that it’s a Mexican boy and Puerto Rican girl kissing. That act, which attracts “an audience of boys,” seemed innocent at first. I remember how my first kiss in a daycare attracted so much attention from my peers despite the girl and I both being African American.

The physical details pulled me in right away. I was in that “audience of boys,” watching it all go down on Lissette’s “aunt’s stoop.” I saw the speaker and Lissette lit “by the flickering streetlamp.”

But, in “Pulling Tongue,” the act’s innocence is lost when Lissette breaks away from the speaker and says, “You fuckin Mexicans kiss like girls,” an allusion to the myth of masculinity.

I know how hard it is to bounce back from a fall like that.

That his attempts to “kiss harder” and his finger that “stutters over her knee, her thigh” weren’t enough made the fall that much harder.

And to add insult to injury, Lissette “slaps” the speaker’s arm afterwards, as if almost to show she’s more of a man than the boy. An allusion to that fall is in this physical detail: “I rise/ & brace myself for their eyes.”

But another look at that scene made me wonder something different: what if Lissette liked the kiss, but had to pretend otherwise because of her friends and the expectations of loyalty to her people. In that context, it was impossible to read “Pulling Tongue” and not think of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Arthur Laurents’s West Side Story, both stories of  lovers caught between the drama of their feuding families.

The speaker’s age is not mention, which made me also wonder what if Lissette was too young to know what she liked.

(IMAGE: University of Notre Dame Press)

Another musical moment in “Pulling Tongue” is in “Backlit by the flickering streetlamp.” That line is trochaic tetrameter, with one dactyl over “flickering” in the third foot. The trochees in that line conjured up the same sound of the large marching drum I felt earlier in Ross Gay’s poem, “Unclean. Make me.” The dactyl in “flickering,” which speeds up the rhythm of that line, also conjured up the sound of sticks rapping a snare drum.

The trochees also made me think of the large drums in kung fu movie scores that let the audience know a conflict is about to happen.

It has that same effect in Martínez Pompa’s poem, where the speaker’s tone shifted from joyful to sad, allowing tension to build in the third stanza before the conflict in the fourth.

The speaker’s fall in “Pulling Tongue” is an example of the consequences that face both speakers in Against Which and My Kill Adore Him for baring themselves in a world of hard edges.

Like Gay’s, Martínez Pompa’s speaker falls, but is not broken as a result of it. That the speaker in “Pulling Tongues” is able to “rise & brace” himself “for their eyes” is a manly act despite the apparent weakness. In fact, that act is what makes the speaker the braver than the “audience of boys” and the “mob set to detonate/ the entire block.”

[1] from Paul Martínez Pompa’s poem, “The Performer”

[2] from Ross Gaye’s poem, “Broken Mania”

[3] from Paul Martínez Pompa’s poem, “Sucker MCs”

[4] Ross Gaye, Against Which, Fort Lee, NJ: CavanKerry Press, 2006, p. 5

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 10

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. 11

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 12-13

[11] Paul Martínez Pompa, My Kill Adore Her, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009, p. 3

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 17

[14] Ibid., p. 5

3 thoughts on “Dispelling the Myth of Masculinity: Ross Gay and Paul Martínez Pompa

    1. Man,

      Ross Gay is one of my favorite poets, and Paul Martinez Pompa is pretty mean with the mean with the pen, too. But your comment made my day. Anytime I can “rekindle” someone’s love of poetry, especially in a day and time when it’s not respected much as a craft, I’m honored. Thanks for the encouraging words!

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