I learned its meaning from my mother.
Warm like the compress
against her stoma.
as I attached
her colostomy bag.
Reassuring eye contact
when she apologized
“for this god-awful mess.”
Ready to remind her:
the countless times
she changed me
as a child.
Grateful to mine affection
it might be found.
My father built a cage for me:
to a neighbor’s rusty flatbed,
my sister trimming it with streamers—
blue and gold, Lions Club colors.
Reminded by my father’s friends
to stand tall in my red velvet vest
and top hat, I gripped the leather
whip Like you mean it, my uncle said,
muffled beneath his furry lion head.
The streamers wilting in the heat
as we rocked past sunburned spectators
lining the curb, my free hand
clenching a splintery bar. Give ‘em
a show, my uncle growled, pawing
at his mane. Like you mean it!
I didn’t like being reminded. I didn’t
like the crowd as it swelled: Whip him,
wuss! What’re you afraid of? I knew
my sister would say she could have
done a better job. And she would have.
My father’s eyes in the rear-view.
I tried to strike, to thrash—the lash
as ill-fitting as my costume. I let
the whip fall to the truck’s bed,
turning my back on the crowd, my uncle,
my father’s mirror. A surge of blood
into my palms as if my life-lines
were being carved right there
by the same tame power of resistance
spilling through the bars so hard,
the streamers finally lifted.
“My career is an actress’s career. And I play a comedienne.” —Joan Rivers
At night she imagines the scrawny girl
who reimagined herself as something
more than a smear on mirror glass.
Her purse full of punchlines, the sharpest
folded—like a switchblade—inside
her compact. Tomorrow, and tomorrow
again, she will put on her face. Lipstick.
Stitches. Really, whatever it takes
for a scrawny girl to play strongman.
Unflinching as she flexes, she doles out
laugh lines, distorting faces, rows of smiles
invisible to her in the spotlight’s glare.
was once the only place, the easiest destination.
Maybe one of the first words you grasped: Come here.
To the warm lap of mother. Or father: Here you go! A bottle
to calm the chaos of where: “Where is my bear? My juice? My …”
Here. Always right there. In a voice. In a carpet that smelled
like your dog, your saliva. Maybe a breast. A spoonful.
Or a Look who’s here! A familiar face, gesture or shape.
Here was the room your crib was warmed by morning sun
and cooled by shadows. Then a bigger room where you fantasized
as a teen. “Get outta here!” Yelled at your little brother
or sister barging into the small square belonging only to you.
“I’m up here!” A call through your window at friends
when grounded. “Right here!” Always plotting an escape.
Even here, under your pillow—where Tooth Fairies once left
money you saved to see movies set in exotic locations that shrunk
your here into a speck called “I’m never going back there!”
once you found a dorm room or new city or lover abroad
that made you say “I like it here.” Making it unreliably clear.
Here. A mere idea:
The place you tried to bury with your mother’s body,
the outstretched legs in that box eliminating her lap.
An Interview with Michael Montlack
by poetry editorial staff Julie Brooks Barbour and Ky Dubeau
Border Crossing: In your poem “Masculinity,” the speaker learns about gender from the mother and, in doing so, understands that masculinity can represent warmth and reassurance, as well as other kindnesses, from taking care of another person. At the same time, this poem also interrogates the limitations of prescribed gender roles. Could you talk about the duality at work in this poem and the importance of understanding the complexities of gender?
Michael Montlack: Yes, I associate masculinity with kindnesses, something my mother and father gifted me. My father was a mechanic of few words who loved his mother. He loved to build things and serve his community through the Lions Club too. Every weekend he dragged me and my twin sister to some fundraiser or charity event. And looking back I am thankful for those experiences. My male role model was one who demonstrated creativity, consideration and humble service. But it was my mother who taught me the most about being a man. At the end of her life, she needed help changing her colostomy bag, and I was glad to step up, especially since my sister had done so much for her. I am grateful for the intimacy we shared in what could have been an awkward moment. She noted my calmness and apologized for her nudity. I was determined to erase her shame and reminded her that she had changed me as a child. Like my father adored his mother, I adored mine. When she passed, her best friend Josie called to say my mother phoned her the day I changed her bag, bragging that her son did that for her. It’s a shame such nurturing isn’t encouraged more in men. As a gay man with strong sisters and a strong mother, gender is complex and simple for me. It shouldn’t matter. But in this world it does. And until it doesn’t, we have to examine it. Growing up with a female twin shaped me too as I saw firsthand how the world treated us differently, expecting different things from us. As kids, we felt equal but were told otherwise, the subtler messages being the most damaging. I don’t think strength is masculine or feminine. Strength is being humane. Both my parents taught me that.
BC: In “Joan,” femininity is challenged in a similar regard: “Really, whatever it takes / for a scrawny girl to play a strongman.” The use of the word “strongman” is vital to this poem and gives us an idea of how Joan Rivers had to navigate the entertainment industry during her career. We’d love to hear more about your inspiration for this poem.
MM: After seeing A Piece of Work, the documentary about Joan Rivers, what stayed with me most was how she admitted that she was an actress, that comedy was a way to make a living while she did “the rounds” for roles (and not comic ones). Since childhood, she knew theater was her place. And this quote moved me to write the poem: “My career is an actress’s career. And I play a comedienne.” She was a pioneer for women in comedy in what was a male-dominated industry, following in the footsteps of Phyllis Diller, another woman known for cosmetic surgery. How vulnerable and strong they were, laughing at themselves and their surgeries. They were gifted artists in a world with rigid standards of beauty. Joan may not have met them as a young actress but was resourceful enough to navigate around them, acting like a comedienne. It’s brilliant. She acted funny? What a performance! Like a circus strongman, she lifted the weight of a harsh entertainment industry and stayed relevant much longer than most performers, especially those relying on their appearance. She had to be stronger than her male peers. And she was.
BC: The rigid standards you mention here are a reminder of the standards expected of the young speaker in “Parade” who is encouraged to give the crowd a show. The lines of italicized dialogue in the poem are especially powerful, allowing us to hear what the speaker hears as he moves through this moment. What was your process in writing this poem and including the lines of dialogue?
MM: As a kid, I often felt old, burdened with the awareness that I was gay even before I knew what that meant, before I had a word for it. What should have been a fun moment, playing a lion tamer on a float representing my father and uncle’s Lions Club chapter, became one charged with what I can identify now as resistance. It startled me the way the onlookers encouraged me to be violent. It makes sense, yes. I was a lion tamer and it was in good fun for charity. But being called a wuss because I wasn’t brutal enough embarrassed and angered me. The dialogue is key because it portrays the pressure. I could feel the manipulation, being bullied into becoming a bully. It felt awkward either way, disappointing my family and the crowd or betraying myself. I was a boy playing a role, but I was being shamed into displaying their idea of manliness, which I sensed would be a life-long role and a rigid one. I knew I’d be seen as a sourpuss kid. “What’re you afraid of?” they shouted. I couldn’t express it back then. But I was afraid of surrendering to peer pressure, of being defined by the expectations of others, of betraying my own true nature, and maybe caging my own wild animal.
BC: Your poem “Here” explores the importance of belonging to a place even as that place changes through time. A place also changes meaning through loss, when it becomes “a mere idea,” which is a stunning shift at the end of the poem. The movement in the poem from “here” to “there” reflects the growth of the speaker’s world view and the need to expand the space where he belongs. Could you talk about your use of repetition in this poem and the ways in which repetition helps to build narrative in poetry?
MM: Place and people are my favorite subjects. A lot of my poems are portraits. I see place as a character. And “Here” is a meditation on place. It’s one of the first concepts we learn, I think. Here. So simple. So loaded. It’s a specific location that changes as we move. It starts as our origin and becomes our destination. Suburbia was my childhood here, one that I left but did not leave behind, because we carry here to our various notions of there, including our losses, like the loss of my mother–I take that everywhere. “Here” is a poem exploring the geographic cure, its expectations, remedies and failures. It’s strange how here follows us. Places are not haunted. We are haunted by places, by what they mean to us, by the people who populate them.
Yes, this poem relies on repetition, showing how much here is in our lives, how it constantly changes. When I teach repetition in Creative Writing classes, I often use Victoria Redel’s “Bedecked” as an example of how repetition builds narrative, especially when it’s varied. In that poem a mother addresses other parents who criticize her for allowing her son to dress up and wear jewelry as a girl might do. The phrase “tell me” is repeated: “Tell me it’s wrong” becomes “Tell me I should teach him” then “Tell me what you need to tell me” and “Now try to tell me.” It’s powerful how the tone shifts with the varying repetition. It tells a story, a mother who hears the criticism, considers advice, but ultimately rejects the intrusion, protecting her child’s individuality. It’s a dare at the end. It’s like a growl, and the best kind. Repetition and its variation created that.
BC: Earlier we discussed your inspiration for the poem “Joan.” Which writers and artists are currently influencing and/or impacting your work?
MM: Yes, I love comedy for its timing, tone, and imagery, which parallels with poetry, and I aim for humor in my work sometimes as it’s a powerful vehicle for social and political themes. Jessica Kirson, Yamaneika Saunders and Amy Sedaris are my current comedy crushes. They’re geniuses. I admire their abandon, studying their word choice and how they structure narratives. I’m currently working on a series of poems about clowns and comedians: Bea Arthur, Paul Lynde, Joan Rivers, Amy Sedaris, court jesters, even Richard Simmons … Two poets who currently influence my work are Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar. When I met them, we had instant rapport and they invited me to write with them, reintroducing me to prompts–the three of us lounging in their living room in silence, using the same list of words or phrases to create poems–it was so freeing, the playfulness of it, the problem solving, and the community–it’s changed my approach to drafting. I’m more adventurous and spontaneous now. I can let go, inviting the muses to visit instead of waiting around for them to show up. Some of my other influences include Marie Ponsot, Marilyn Nelson, Elizabeth Bishop, and David Trinidad.
Michael Montlack is author of two books of poetry, most recently Daddy (NYQ Books, 2020), and editor of the Lambda Finalist essay anthology My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them (University of Wisconsin Press). Recently his work has appeared in North American Review, Cincinnati Review, Poet Lore, The Offing, Hotel Amerika, Court Green, and Los Angeles Review. He lives in NYC.