"Epic Manliness" by Vincent Guerra was the previous winner of the Online Big Fish Lyric Essay contest, as announced last spring. We're presenting it now to coincide with the soon-to-open Big Fish Flash Fiction/Prose Poetry contest! That contest is open from October 1st to November 1st. Read more about that here. In the meantime, enjoy this piece by Vincent Guerra.
Telemachus, the Door’s Ajar
No one detects a man’s hypocrisy better than his twenty year-old son. But an absent father often reaches a heroic rank, through the exaggeration of second-hand accounts and a child’s imagination filling in the empty hours. However, as Robert Bly tells us, this absence injures a son’s self-confidence.
Telemachus, on the playground, was known to classmates as Telemarketer, Televangelist, even Teletubby. Eventually, Telemachus would doubt his own legitimacy: Mother has always told me I’m his son… but I am not so certain, he tell us. One might locate this doubt as the driving question of the epic––the father leaves, the epic begins.
If life is just a long paternity test...1
The Classicist’s Father
A man’s father raced speedboats. He showed us his jacket embroidered with two, hand-sized patches—one of a boat, the other of a gold trophy like a Grecian urn. “My father died,” he told us, “in the final year of my dissertation at Berkeley. I crashed,” he said, and the man, raising his hands to his face, summoned an invisible wall of water to wash over him.
We were sitting in a circle in a run-down cabin on moldy, orange couches and metal folding chairs. Everyone was tired from the five-hour drive to the retreat center in the mountains. There’s something unbearable about listening to men talk about their fathers. I felt like rising from my rusted chair and screaming, “No one fucking cares,” then heading to the cafeteria to eat their meat lasagna until I fell asleep.
Of course, I kept quiet, and the man continued: “I couldn’t read a single book; I couldn’t write a single word. I had been working for six years; I had two chapters left, and all my motivation sunk. I realized that my Ph.D. was to spite him, a man who didn’t even earn a high school diploma. When he died, there was no reason for me to continue with my degree.”
If one is not in search of one’s father, one is often subconsciously or consciously plotting his death (Is this why Telemachus leaves the armory door open, allowing the suitors a chance to defeat his father?). Even a dissertation can be an Oedipal weapon. Here, we have the second motor for the epic.2
After he finished his sermon, he passed the wine and communion and removed his father’s jacket with the rest of his vestments.
The General of Shame
Robert Bly, poet and father of the mythopoetic men’s movement, ends his poem, “My Father at 85,” with a note of triumphant irony: “He never phrased / what he desired, / and I am / his son.”3 The speaker describes his father. The father stays silent. “I do not want / or need / to be shamed / by him / any longer,” Bly writes. “The general of shame / has discharged him / and left him in this / small provincial / Egyptian town.”
According to Bly, his father was shame’s middle management. According to Bly, his father resembles three birds: 1) an eagle, the bird used throughout the Odyssey to signify the kingly Odysseus 2) a vulture, a carrion bird who hovers above the dying, who was revered in ancient Egypt for its ingenuity in using stones as tools 3) a baby bird, “waiting to be fed”
Bly continues: “If I do not wish / to shame him, then / why not /love him?” Sometimes, a son’s love is like a pillow sealing the mouth of an invalid.4
The Manliness of the Middle-Distance Warrior5
One should not deliver the deeds of heroes with a soft voice. ––Dionysus Thrax, 2nd Century BCE Grammarian
Homer distinguishes between two types of manliness in the Odyssey: hnopeh, which connotes valor and a proper relation to other men and to one’s wife (attributed to Odysseus), and aghnopih, which denotes “excessive manliness,” a self-destructive manliness (attributed to the suitors for their displays of macho and their general sleaziness toward married women). These men, while courageous in appearance, rush into battle, quickly dying, not having to prove themselves over the long war. In other words, they have commitment issues.
We learn of one such suitor’s thoughts on the value of life: “Friends, / I can’t bend it. Take it, someone—try. / Here is a bow to rob our best of life and breath, / all our best contenders! Still, better to be dead / than live on here, never winning the prize / that tempts us all—forever in pursuit, / burning with expectation every day.”
Conflicting Advice from the Damned
The Poo and the Alphabet6
A is for aweful, which things are; B is for bear them, well as we can. C is for can we? D is for dare: E is for each dares, being a man… ––John Berryman
Achilles: By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man— / some dirt- poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive–– / than rule down here over all the breathless dead.7
Henry: Henry likes Fall. / Hé would be prepared to líve in a world of Fáll / for ever, impenitent Henry. / But the snows and summers grieve & dream.
Lucifer: It is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.
Woody: All men are mortal. Socrates was mortal. Therefore, all men are Socrates... which means that all men are homosexuals...
Bending the Bow
They are shooting me full of sings. ––Henry Pussycat
Like an expert singer skilled at lyre and song… under his touch it sang out clear and sharp as a swallow’s cry.
He would have strung the bow, but Odysseus shook his head.8
After 428 pages of struggling, the story arcs to full tension,
and the suitors think it must have been an accident
when Odysseus puts an arrow through the throat of their leader, Antinous.
The suitors’ signifying birds?—Geese, who feed then are slaughtered.9
I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger: and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.11 ––John 6:35
If life is a handkerchief sandwich… ––Henry Pussycat
Odysseus: It is. But Odysseus, the “son of pain,” expects as much.
The modern breadwinner, however, stomachs something akin to Tennyson’s Ulysses:
“Life piled on life,” the stagnancy of routine, social superfluity––a qualitatively different
Robert Bly’s Iron John, his attempt to harden the too-soft and fatherless American male, calls on its male reader to seek the “Wild Man” within himself. The Wild Man in Bly’s account of the fairytale—a retelling of Grimm’s Iron Hans—comes from a twelfth-century romance, titled Robert the Devil. While the Wild Man in Bly’s version mentors the young prince into manhood, in Robert the Devil, the wild man is the demon from which the young prince must flee.
If, as Bly insists, “The boomers are a culture of siblings. Their fathers are all dead.” Then they are also a culture seeking their mentors in the figures of devils.
Telemachus’ Mentor was Athena—neither a wild man nor devil, but a god of wisdom (It might also be relevant to state the obvious that Athena was female.).
Wild Child, Full of Grace, Savior of the Human Race
He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze. ––Psalm 18
There was another priest at the Jesuit retreat center that fall, a twenty-something novitiate who made the Jesuits seem more like Jedi Knights than priests of a Catholic religious order. His was a convert’s enthusiasm: “What got me into Catholicism,” he said, “wasn’t the evangelical, feel-good Jesus-as-best-friend. It was the rebel Jesus, the Curt Cobain Jesus.”
The Curt Cobain Jesus.
Kicking the Suitors Out
“Working with the most mundane consumer activities, men are able to cultivate a sense that important matters are at stake and that the success of one's actions are vital, even though there is no clear and present danger animating the scene.” ––“Man-of-Action Heroes”
Thus Troy. Thus the Curt Cobain Jesus.
In an interview in last June’s Outside magazine, the musician Jack Johnson talks about his new album inspired by Bly’s Iron John (Johnson’s father died the previous year.). Columnist, Michael Roberts identifies Johnson as, “A writer of many, many love songs who takes his wife and kids on tour. A summer breeze incarnate. A soft man.” But meeting Johnson for the interview, Roberts notes, “And yet, something about Jack Johnson feels surprisingly—how to put it?—potent. For starters, he looks different. Wearing brown pants, with thick, bronzed arms popping out of a snug green T-shirt… Tougher, too, and definitely more hirsute, with a beard and a thicket of sunbaked hair.” According to Roberts, all Henry needed was a new haircut.14
“Why Oh Why Oh Why? Because Because Because Because Goodbye Goodbye Goodbye”
Bly might be somewhat right: perhaps one does become a man when the image of one’s father dies––when one ceases to compare oneself to one’s father––when the archetype dissolves and a person emerges, slightly overweight, retired, attending junior college music classes, hiking the mid-Sierras on the weekends.
Of course, for many, the image is all there is:
“your stance in the sand. Think it across, in freezing wind: withstand my blistered wish: flop, there, to his blind song who pick up the tab.” ––Henry15
How do we pick up the tab? After loss makes confederates of us.
Telemachus had his mother, his nurse.
He would have strung the bow…
1. At age twelve, I was sure my father was Jim Morrison’s illegitimate son, that I was heir to the Lizard King. My father grew up in Venice Beach; Jim Morrison moved to Venice Beach after dropping out of FSU. This coincidence only confirmed my already growing belief that I was born to be a mystic rock star. Unfortunately, the logistics didn’t add up: Morrison was nine when my father was born, already dreaming up his own shamanic mythology, while moving every few years for his sea-going father, a navy admiral.
2. “The End,” The Doors’ twelve-minute musical epic, climaxes after the singer’s confrontation with his father: “Father. Yes, Son. I want to kill you.”
4. "You cannot become a man until your own father dies," Bly says in an interview with Time in 1991. Bly, the speaker of this poem, was 59 years-old; he did not become a man until two years later, at age 61.
5. “Telemachus” roughly translates to “he who fights from afar.”
6. My father worked at a shit factory. He commuted three hours a day to the sewage treatment plant down the valley in Sacramento. He worked the graveyard shift and slept in the day. In the morning, the music blaring from his car signaled his arrival home.
7. Immediately following this passage, Achilles asks about this son: “But come, tell me the news about my gallant son. / Did he make his way to the wars, / did the boy become a champion—yes or no?”
8. In ancient Greece, the stringing of the bow held the symbolic weight of becoming a man.
9. Driving with my father, the windows down in his mercury-blue Tercel, a soda held steady between my legs, I asked him the question perhaps all nine year-olds ask: What is the meaning of life? My father slowed his Toyota into an apple orchard. Needless to say, his answer was profoundly disappointing, indicating only that he, as I thought at the time, did not know.
10. The summer my father met my mother at the Independence Day parade in Nevada City, CA, he worked as a furniture mover in the Bay Area. He planned to enroll in the California College of Arts and Crafts that fall. Only the clay torso in the shed beneath a sheet of plastic and myself (Vincent, after Van Gogh) remain as remnants of this intent.
11. Lord: Origin: bef. 900; ME lord, loverd, OE hlāford, hlāfweard lit., loaf-keeper.
12. My father’s pain is famous among my relatives. He uses a sourdough starter that’s now fifteen years-old.
13. A picture taken at a Halloween costume party in Minneapolis in 1967 shows Berryman with a Stonewall Jackson beard, dressed as his grandfather, the Confederate General Robert Glenn Shaver. Berryman’s biographer, Paul Mariani, writes that early in the Civil War, Shaver commanded Arkansas’ “Bloody Seventh” infantry. After the war, Shaver became commander of the Arkansas Klu Klux Klan. Mariani writes, “His was the last organized army to surrender to the Yankees.”
14. But Berryman’s Dream Songs don’t present a model of manhood, as Bly attempts. Instead, they give us a crisis in the dream depths of one who sits on the fence between Rebel and Breadwinner, weighing, like Hamlet, the worth of life as a man, deciding not.
15. Mariani gives this description of Berryman’s desperate father: “As Smith’s drinking increased, he began walking the beaches distractedly, at times dangling a .32 caliber automatic from his right hand. Often he swam out into the gulf as his older boy anxiously watched him disappear.” Smith would soon kill himself with the same .32 caliber. Ten weeks later, Berryman’s mother married their landlord, “Uncle Jack.”