Poems on the Male Experience

Edited by Craig Crist-Evans, Kate Fetherston, and Roger Weingarten.
(Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006).
200 pages. Paperback: $22.95, ISBN # 978-0877459880.

Reviewed by Tom C. Hunley




      After Cati Porter asked me to review this book, I glanced into the eyes of some of the thirty male mannequin heads on the front cover, and I felt weirdly transgressive. In the world of contemporary American poetry, a project like this seems as out of place as a real human head might seem upon one of those pairs of mannequin shoulders. I mean, there are journals such as Kalliope and Calyx that only publish women; there are book publishers such as Switchback Books, Kore Press, and Arktoi Books who exclusively publish female poets, but in the twenty-first century, no sane litmag editor or book publisher would set out to exclusively feature male poets. At the university where I teach, we offer two literature classes devoted to poetry: one is called “American Poetry,” and the other is called “Women’s Poetry”; anyone who proposed a class called “Men’s Poetry” here would be laughed off by the curriculum committee. There’s even a new women-only AWP-like conference in the works, launched by a female poet who became indignant when AWP rejected one of her panel proposals, but as far as I know, none of the male poets whose panels were rejected has launched a similar “guys-only” conference.

     Upon opening to the table of contents, I was relieved to discover that this book was not a Little Rascals-style he-man woman-hater’s clubhouse with a “no girls allowed” sign on the door. Twenty-six of the ninety-three poets in the anthology are women, and that’s one of my favorite features of the book. We all have blind spots about ourselves, and in order to gain a more complete understanding about men, women’s views of men must be consulted (like when I ask my wife “which shirt looks better on me?” or “which cologne smells manlier?”). My understanding of the male experience has been particularly enhanced by Narda Bush’s playful “Noodling,” Sharon Doubiago’s tender-but-passionate “How to Make Love to a Man,” Jane Hirshfield’s somewhat-didactic “A Man Walks Through His Life,” Clare Rossini’s fanciful “Cupid,” Naomi Shihab-Nye’s bittersweet “The Boy Removes All Traces from His Room,” and, above all, Victoria Redel’s “Bedecked,” in which a mother fiercely stands up for her son’s right to stand apart from the herd, concluding: “Now try to tell me – man or woman – your heart was ever once that brave.”

     I’m impressed by the range of subject matter in this book, all the different aspects of the male experience under consideration. There’s plenty of what you might expect: poems about war, work, sports, marriage, mens’ relationships with their fathers and with their children. But these poets dig beyond the surface as well. Standout poems address male-on-male rape (“What a Boy Does Not Say” by Christopher Bursk); the difficulties men can have communicating with women and the resulting sense of alienation from them (“No Guarantee by the late Craig Crist-Evans); hair loss (“The Bald Truth” by Bob Hicok); and the male fixation on penis size, discussed by the late Jason Shinder in “Growing Up,” which begins as follows:

The trouble with me
      is I don’t know
           if my penis

is too small
      and I don’t know
           who to ask.

      I don’t love everything about Manthology. A few of the selections (and omissions) seem strange. For example, Mark Halliday has written powerful poems about his father’s death and illness, collected in Keep This Forever, which would have enhanced the anthology. These poems may not have been ready or available at press time, but Halliday still could have been better represented by earlier poems such as “The Case Against Mist” or “My Moral Life,” rather than by the inane “Questmale,” a throwaway experiment in made-up slang apparently meant to resemble Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat. The poem doesn’t live up to Halliday’s standards for his best work or the standards to which he holds other poets in his frequently-acerbic published reviews and essays. Charles Harper Webb contributed his fine “Prayer for the Man Who Mugged My Father, 72,” but his book, Amplified Dog, published before Manthology, contains some amazing poems about fatherhood, and these would have been great additions to the anthology. Campbell McGrath is a genius, according to the Macarthur Foundation, so surely he’s got something to contribute that’s better than “Xena, Warrior Princess,” an abcedarian that is padded for form, trivial, and banal.

     Also, I’m not crazy about the book’s alphabetical arrangement. The back cover indicates that the book is intended, at least in part, as a gender studies textbook, and teachers of gender studies courses would be greatly helped if the poems were arranged in topical sections that help steer discussion. For example, I can see a class fruitfully discussing David Clewell’s “Going Wrong in the House of Neptune” on the same day as Natasha Saje’s “A Male in the Women’s Locker Room,” but the poems are over 100 pages apart.

     Regardless of these minor faults, I’m very happy to own this book. I keep returning to it for the reasons mentioned above, but also because it contains quite a few contemporary classics, poems I’ve enjoyed elsewhere all bound together in one handy volume. If the only poems in the book were Stephen Dunn’s “The Routine Things around the House,” B.H. Fairchild’s “Body and Soul,” Tony Hoagland’s “Dickhead,” Jeffrey Harrison’s “God’s Penis,” and Mark Jarman’s “Butterflies under Persimmon,” Manthology would still be worth the cover price. 


Tom C. Hunley is an associate professor of English at Western Kentucky University and the director of Steel Toe Books. His latest books are Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach  and Octopus.