Faced with many changes-the increasing evidence that the traditional, male-led nuclear family was often more dys- than functional, the work done by feminists to expand women's choices and rights and to achieve more equitable sharing of work within and outside the household, the signs that two mostly male creations, modernism and the industrial revolution, led to many dead ends, even the growing uncertainty of long-term employment for a gender that had traditionally defined itself by work-many men began to wonder who they really are.
Biographers have transformed men who were once admired into figures who achieved their success in the arts of politics at the expense of their families and relationships. Such media exemplars of maleness as John Wayne or Clint Eastwood don't prove very useful when a lover demands not a clenched jaw and squinty eye, but honest talk about feelings, dammit.
For men trying to construct a workable, credible, and positive construct of their own maleness, poetry has proved to be an effective working method, and less tiring than running around the woods banging on drums. Indeed, the book that many credit with launching the "New Man" movement, Iron John, was written by a poet and made frequent use of such techniques as metaphor, analogy, and allegory. Poetry has never split the rational faculties from the intuitive and affective ones in the way that many other vocations have, so men attempting to locate and reconcile all of their own qualities often use poetry as part of their process; Canadian examples include Richard Harrison, Ken Sherman, Patrick Lane, Endre Farkas, and many others.
Two recent books follow this tradition, but with different takes on how they examine maleness. Blaine Marchand's fourth collection considers his own journey through many stages-a childhood in a large French-Canadian family, a boyhood sexual relationship with a priest, his marriage to a woman who died young, his roles as single father, and finally, as a gay man affirming his sexual identity. By contrast, Mark Cochrane's first book focuses largely on the shifts in his male persona brought about by becoming a father. Both collections play with the transitions and gaps between "boy" and "man", and with the undeniable physical aspects of maleness. It's how they deal with what is inside those ageing male bodies that sets them apart.
Marchand has found his style and voice, and this consistency makes his collection cohere. Most of the poems are meditative, bittersweet, mixing memory and the writer's present condition. He uses free verse in longish stanzas, generally writing in grammatically complete sentences divided by line breaks. Yet out of Marchand's conservative structures and careful phrases emerges genuine courage. In facing his sexual identity, Marchand has had to contend a great deal with his past; writing to a lover, he notes, "Each of us brings a queue of silent partners." He writes movingly of the mixture of joy and shame gay sex had for him as a child, of his longing for it during a marriage in which he evidently much loved his wife, of his acceptance of its pleasures now. In fact, this collection is something of an autobiography-of love, sex, guilt, and self-awareness. It begins with his childhood, and moves through his marriage, his travels to Africa and other places, to his current life. Marchand's approach to his sexuality is frank but not pornographic, the specifics of pleasure always leading to an affirmation: he writes in "Manhood" that "I am truly alive,/ know what is to be male,/ to hold and be held by a man..."
Gay men have sometimes been viewed by homophobes as being "less than manly". Marchand shows us in poems like this that, for him, there is no contradiction between being a man, a father, and gay. That is his life, and he offers it without apology, but with much sensitivity. Some of the material here-especially his memories of the priest who seduced and then ignored him-could easily become sensationalized. In Marchand's hands, they are part of his self-exploration.
Mark Cochrane is a younger writer who is still finding his voice.
Several of the poems in Boy Am I are experimental, and not wholly successful. But Cochrane deserves credit for not falling easily into a standard line and form. What he is trying to communicate is not easy, and therefore it makes sense that his forms sometimes show the strain. The main issue in his first collection is, as he puts it in "Reunion", "to re-conceive the chances of women & men/ together." There are two things worth noting in that passage. The first is the deliberate hyphening of "re-conceive"; following the lead of feminist poets like Betsy Warland, Cochrane is trying to point to the gender messages often buried in compound words. If women can conceive a child, can men in any sense? Are men and women really from different "planets" (as a recent bestseller argues) or are they simply having trouble giving birth to new and better ways of relating? The second point is that Cochrane deliberately reverses "men and women", which is the conventional word order. He is determined to root sexism out of his assumptions and language, to be a new man verbally too. This may sound politically correct, but Cochrane's efforts are honest. For him, being male means paying attention to his own female qualities, and to the fact that women's needs and identities are as important as his own.
Part of his process is to define what he can become by what he is not. "I say / I hate the father but I love my dad," Cochrane writes. Presumably his upper-case patriarch is the kind of father William Blake called "old Nobodaddy": the control-freak, uptight male authority figure. The quest, Cochrane concludes, is to "find a way back/ through men and their measures/ to the meaning of a boy": to construct a man out of what is soft and innocent as well as strong and experienced. Though this echoes the "inner child" of pop psychology, I think Cochrane intends a deeper idea: that men can "conceive" themselves differently by not losing the positive qualities of their boyhood while they mature as adults. Thus they can "have their child," if not physically, at least spiritually.
As with Marchand, the male body is an inescapable fact in the process, but Cochrane is more ambivalent about the physical aspects of maleness. He writes of the joy of playing basketball with men, but also of how "fear of the body/ grips me in a miser's fist." Cochrane isolates in "Reunion" a moment while making love with his wife when "At the rise/ of the pubis where we meet/ this perfect pivot we make/ we are identical. Admit this/ as a beginning". Thus the maleness-the very symbol Freud built a psychology on-vanishes, rather than being affirmed, in the moment of ecstasy the poet seeks.
The best work in this collection is honest and moving. Cochrane is sincere in trying to write a new male self, one not selfish but self-with as far as his wife and child go. Yet the compelling quality of the strong poems is sometimes offset by a kind of a grad-student cleverness in others, when he attempts to make art out of such conceits as striking out words in poems, bracketing letters to bring out ambiguities in words like "(s)mother", offering ironic and self-referential footnotes, or rewriting a poem and giving us alternative versions, as he does with the "kid Bean" poems. There is enough promise and serious intention here, though, to indicate that Cochrane will dispense with affectations as he continues to mature as a poet.
John Oughton, a long-time contributor to Books in Canada, has a new book of poetry, Counting Out the Millennium, out from Pecan Grove Press in Texas.