- Those Words, Those Men
Richard Jeffrey Newman
122 Pages; Print, $20.00
The title demands to be questioned: Who are “those men”? What have they done? We don’t receive an answer until the final poem of the volume, but we immediately sense a tone of alienation in the use of “those”—not “these,” or “the.” We strongly suspect that what the men have done is sexual and violent. We wonder, too, about the title’s use of “words.” Does spoken language matter in the face of physical mayhem done? One further question: The account of the mayhem, whatever it is, comes to us from a male American poet. Could he be sufficiently acquainted with the atrocities hinted at in the title? We hear the voice of a man leading a relatively tranquil life—teaching, happily married, with a much-loved son. What is his claim to speak of the atrocities in the title? This well-wrought book has answers to all the queries it raises.
Its first three sections prepare us for the revelation in the last, and convince us that this poet’s life and gifts have schooled him to speak for an abuse victim, even one who is female, Third World, and, most shockingly, a child.
In many ways, this collection represents a man’s “Me-too,” a reminder that one doesn’t have to be female to have one’s life blighted by a predatory man in a position of greater power. Of course, thousands of boys harmed by unscrupulous priests could deliver this reminder, but few have felt empowered to do so; even fewer, as far as I know, have been poets.
The first of the book’s four sections informs us that the poet himself was damaged in youth by an abusive stepfather, and we learn how the intervention of a trusted woman helped undo the deep damage. The poet, without coyness, prurience, or shock effects, describes, in measured lines, a moment of redemption:
…nothing as Ihardened against her tonguecame to me of the manpushing himself between my teeth,pouring into meout of who he waswho he was.
In a single lyric the poet tells both how the body’s memory is scarred and how trust in bodily experience is restored:
and then who I wasgathered itselfto a point in meI kept for myself
Newman frequently refers to dreams that conflate troubled times in his life. One four-page prose poem is a dream report which, unlike most such narratives, manages to sustain our curiosity and interest: “My uterus has colonial ambitions,” she says, “a joke I don’t get because in the dream I don’t know what endometriosis is.” She explains, telling me her doctor thinks pregnancy might be a cure and did I want to be the one…I say “No, a child is not an instrument.”
“You Should Visit,” a longish, ambitious poem in the second section of the book, weaves together interactions between cultures, genders, religions, ethnicities, ingeniously linking diverse periods and characters—a stranger delighted when the poet speaks to her in Korean, an insensitive rabbi eulogizing a boy’s grandmother, a Nigerian student responding to an assignment to write about “a childhood event you continue to learn from,” evoking his own sister’s genital mutilation. The large cast of characters in this poem includes a pair of the poet’s old friends from high school who question his independence from his Jewish heritage. “What, I hear my grandmother ask, / have you kept? / You should have gone to Kansas.” The poet has given himself the assignment he gave his own students: to learn from “childhood events,” “keeping” some, leaving others behind.
It would be wrong to assume that Newman writes versified anecdotes rather than true poems. He is a versatile and resourceful craftsman, particularly adept at shaping a variety of expressive lines. Consider, for example, these two titles: “Because you have been a feast for me…” and “My Body Fresh from Dreaming You.” Consider the virtuosic...