Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
For My Son, A Kind of Prayer
If the cur­rent, almost dai­ly rev­e­la­tions about the sex­u­al­ly preda­to­ry behav­ior of pow­er­ful men demon­strate any­thing, it’s the per­va­sive­ness of sex­u­al violence–against girls and women and men and boys–in Amer­i­can soci­ety; and I mean all of Amer­i­can soci­ety. We are learn­ing about these men because their posi­tions of pow­er, priv­i­lege, and pres­tige make the vio­lence they’ve com­mit­ted news­wor­thy in a way that the sex­u­al harass­ment and/or assault com­mit­ted, say, by the man­ager of the fast food restau­rant down the block usu­al­ly is not; but we should not pre­tend that these less news­wor­thy cas­es are any less ubiq­ui­tous. More­over, if rec­og­niz­ing this per­va­sive­ness tells us any­thing, it should be that our polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion about sex­u­al violence–from the point of view of both pol­i­cy­mak­ing and cul­tur­al analy­sis; of pro­vid­ing ser­vices and sup­port to sur­vivors, hold­ing per­pe­tra­tors account­able, and chang­ing atti­tudes and behaviors–needs to become ever more broad and nuanced. My own, small con­tri­bu­tion to that broad­er con­ver­sa­tion, as a man who is a sur­vivor, is through poet­ry. A few years ago, Voice Male mag­a­zine pub­lished an ear­ly ver­sion of “For My Son, A Kind of Prayer,” the poem from which the title of my new book poet­ry, Words for What Those Men Have Done, is tak­en. I would, of course, be very hap­py if you bought the book, but the poem seems, sad­ly, espe­cial­ly rel­e­vant now, and so it seems appro­pri­ate to post it here, on its own. The poem does con­tain images of sex­u­al vio­lence:

For My Son, A Kind of Prayer

                                               …for they know
Of some most haughty deed or thought
That waits upon his future days…

—William But­ler Yeats, “A Prayer for My Son”

Just before his moth­er
pushed him through her­self
hard enough to split who she was
wide enough for him to enter the world,
I touched the top of my son’s head;
and after he was born,
the midwife—Vivian,
I think it was—
held my wife’s umbil­i­cal cord
in a loop for me to cut, which I did,
free­ing our new boy’s body
to enter the name
we had wait­ing for him;
and then Vivian laid him
against the curve of his mother’s bel­ly,
giv­ing him to the breast
he would for years
define his world by,
and once that first taste of love
was firm­ly lodged with­in him,
she bun­dled him tight,
placed him in my arms
and, while I sang his wel­come
in a far cor­ner of the room,
turned to assist the sur­geon
sewing up my wife’s
birth-torn flesh.

I don’t remem­ber what song I chose,
and it’s been a decade at least
since I’ve told any­one
about my son’s first moments
as my son, but they’ve come to me here,
in this urologist’s wait­ing room,
because I picked up from the cof­fee table
this copy of The Nation
anoth­er patient must have left behind,
and the first arti­cle I opened to,
“Silence=Rape,” by Jan Good­win,
intro­duced me to Shashir,
six years old and gang raped
in the Con­go. When they found her,
she was starv­ing;
and when they found her,
she could nei­ther walk nor talk;
and so they stitched togeth­er
the parts of her the men had rup­tured,
fed her, gave her cloth­ing,
and that night she slept
for the first time since no one knew when
in a bed that was not
the bush the mili­tia had left her to die in;
and maybe the tent walls
shap­ing the room she lived in
when Good­win learned she exist­ed
had come to mean for her
a kind of safe­ty; and maybe
that safe­ty was fer­tile ground,
where words for what those men had done to her
dropped like seeds
from the mouths of those who res­cued her
and began to take root.

I have not been gang raped,
but a white man much old­er than I was
when I was twelve
forced his penis into my mouth,
seared the back of my throat
with what he poured out of him­self
and sealed into silence
every­thing that took me
fif­teen years of push­ing
till who I was split wide enough
that who I am
could speak his first true words.

***

Mr. New­man?” The nurse,
white, blond, about my age,
calls my name, one of the few
she hasn’t butchered, sit­ting as I am
among the men of Jack­son Heights,
where names that would twist
the tongue of any Eng­lish speak­er
are com­mon, but I’m not yet ready
to leave Goodwin’s piece.
Maria was sev­en­ty
when the Inter­a­hamwe
tied her legs apart
like a goat before slaugh­ter;
and the women Good­win leaves name­less,
most of them dead or dying from infec­tion,
their labia pierced and pad­locked
when the men who raped them were done—
the sto­ry belongs to them as well.

Mr. New­man?”

I put the mag­a­zine down,
bear those women with me
as I rise towards the door
I need to walk through
so I can place in this doctor’s hand
the left tes­ti­cle I found a bump on
three days ago. A few
of my fel­low patients
glance up as I pass,
one of them smil­ing,
nod­ding his head,
as if to say,
“Don’t wor­ry.
It’ll all work out.”

I smile back, grate­ful
for his small empa­thy,
notice as I do
that the flag pin on his lapel
and the name of the news­pa­per
fold­ed in his lap
place his ori­gin in,
or at least his alle­giance to,
a coun­try mak­ing head­lines
for sto­ries like Shashir’s;
and I know this doesn’t hap­pen
only “over there,” and of course
no man in this room,
what man could ever
do enough to end it?
So I’m think­ing maybe
this is where we’re sup­posed to be,
a kind of pur­ga­to­ry
preg­nant with poet­ic jus­tice.

***

The door shuts behind me.
“This way, please,” the nurse
grins over her shoul­der,
lead­ing me in silence
to the room where I will wait.
A four-col­or poster
of my repro­duc­tive sys­tem
dom­i­nates the wall.
Its penis, I notice,
includes the fore­skin.
The plas­tic mod­el
sit­ting on the cab­i­net
does not—something
to ask the doc­tor about,
but when he arrives
my only thought
resem­bles a prayer.

He snaps on
latex gloves;
I let my pants
fall to my ankles,
my under­wear
to just below my knees,
and I watch him han­dle
what the lan­guage my son
shares with his moth­er
calls my tokhm, my eggs.

It’s prob­a­bly noth­ing,”
the doc­tor nods sage­ly,
step­ping back,
peel­ing the rub­ber
off his hands.
I pull my cloth­ing up,
tuck in my shirt.
“Still,” he con­tin­ues—
I’m fum­bling with my zip­per—
“let’s check it again
six months from now.”
He offers a firm smile
with his hand for me to shake,
turns from the squeeze he gives mine
as if I’m already gone,
and walks off to treat
the next man
in the next room.

I head back out the way I came,
where my friend smiles and nods again,
lift­ing his hand in a farewell
I answer with my own nod and smile,
the reprieve I’ve just got­ten
pre­dis­pos­ing me
not to assume the worst of any­one.

Out­side, the wind
rips the hood
away from my head;
snow gusts slap
back and forth
across my cheeks,
and I am remind­ed
how quick­ly beau­ty turns cold,
how eas­i­ly death
wears friendship’s face.
I want to know
how a man who loves his chil­dren
does not see their faces
in the eyes of the girl
whose vagi­na he is open­ing
with a bot­tle or a bay­o­net;
I want to know
how a woman’s screams
beneath the fourth or fifth
or eleventh man in line
does not recall for even one of them
the voice of a woman who loves him,
of a woman he has loved.

My son will nev­er know Shashir,
but he will know men
who could’ve been,
who’d glad­ly be,
among the ones
who vio­lat­ed her;
and he’ll know women,
and oth­er men like me,
who car­ry vio­la­tion
with­in them. A time will come,
because it comes to all of us,
when he’ll be forced to choose
where his alle­giance lies.

These words are for him
on the day of that deci­sion.

1 Comment

  • Ann Gephardt Posted November 18, 2017 7:07 pm

    Rich,
    Very powerful–well done.

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