Nov. 28, 2003
The Rites of Manhood
Poem: "The Rites of Manhood," by Alden Nowlan from What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread (Nineties Press).
The Rites of Manhood
It's snowing hard enough that the taxis aren't running.
I'm walking home, my night's work finished,
long after midnight, with the whole city to myself,
when across the street I see a very young American sailor
standing over a girl who's kneeling on the sidewalk
and refuses to get up although he's yelling at her
to tell him where she lives so he can take her there
before they both freeze. The pair of them are drunk
and my guess is he picked her up in a bar
and later they got separated from his buddies
and at first it was great fun to play at being
an old salt at liberty in a port full of women with
hinges on their heels, but by now he wants only to
find a solution to the infinitely complex
problem of what to do about her before he falls into
the hands of the police or the shore patrol
-- and what keeps this from being squalid is
what's happening to him inside:
if there were other sailors here
it would be possible for him
to abandon her where she is and joke about it
later, but he's alone and the guilt can't be
divided into small forgettable pieces;
he's finding out what it means
to be a man and how different it is
from the way that only hours ago he imagined it.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet Dennis Brutus, born in Zimbabwe (1924). He's the author of Sirens, Knuckles and Bones (1962). He served a sentence of eighteen months of hard labor on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela.
It's the birthday of Stefan Zweig, born in Vienna (1881). He wrote short stories, a dozen biographies, and a memoir, The World of Yesterday (1943), in which he wrote: "In Berlin I sat in cafes with dead drunks and homosexuals and morphine addicts; very proudly I shook the hand of a rather well-known convicted con artist. All the characters in realist novels I could not bring myself to believe in crowded the small rented rooms and cafes in which I sat, and the more terrible their reputations were, the more interested I was in becoming personally acquainted with them."
It's the birthday of Sir Leslie Stephen, born in London (1832). He edited the Dictionary of National Biography (1885), and wrote The History of Thought in the Eighteenth Century. He was Virginia Woolf's father.
It's the birthday of William Blake, born in London (1757). He wrote Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794) and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790). He lived in poverty, ignorant of the rest of the literary world of London, scraping out a living from his trade as an engraver, and writing and drawing under inspiration he considered divine. He said about his long poem Milton, "I have written this poem from immediate dictation, twelve or sometimes twenty lines at a time, without pre-meditation and even against my will." He lived in a world of dreams and visions. One day he and his wife were sitting naked in their garden, reciting to each other passages from Paradise Lost. Blake was not embarrassed when a visitor came by. He said, "Come in! It's only Adam and Eve, you know."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®