Eliza Griswold (IF MEN, THEN) and Victoria Redel (Speaking About Men) – A Tough But Vital Conversation Between Two Poems

American journalist and poet Eliza Griswold.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Prelude to a Massacre

Twenty men crossing a bridge,
into a village,
is not a metaphor
but prelude to a massacre.

Marred by violence
my mind begs forgiveness,
self-conscious at its pattern of reprise.

This old song can’t stop singing itself:

If men,

The bright clatter of boots
on the slats of a bridge,
the mustachioed laughs,
the rise of the first lime–
washed wall of the village,
and behind the wall, women
pinning laundry to a wire.

Eliza Griswold, from IF MEN, THEN, Farrar, Strause, Giroux, 2020

This chilling poem, Prelude To A Massacre, by Eliza Griswold tells one story of how masculinity at its extreme causes such pain and suffering in the world. Obviously, there are many non-violent and caring men in the world but in many places in this world Eliza’s horrifyingly suggestive line in her poem, also the book’s title, If Men, Then, lives up to its worst interpretations. We are seeing this in real time in Ukraine where stories of rape and civilian killings are being recorded daily.

The other side of this  conversation is shown with such craft in Victoria Redel’s poem I discuss  below. I discovered her poem through a workshop with Pádraig Ó Tuama, the host of Poetry Unbound, a few weeks ago. So grateful for all the poems and poets Padraig brings to us in so many different ways.

Eliza Griswold is a poet and writer with a particlar experience in conflict areas around the world including Afghanistan and Pakistan where she reported on the War on Terror. She also is a contributing editor for the New Yorker and in 2019 won a Pulitzer Prize for her book. Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, It was also a 2018 New York Times Notable Book, a Times Critics’ Pick, and won the Ridenhour Book Prize in 2019.

I first discovered Eliza in 2012 through a major article, Everyone is an Immigrant, in Poetry. It  featured the migrant cridsis centered around the island of Lampedusa, southwest of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. And still hundreds are dying in the sea there today and a record 35,000 migranst landed on Lampedusa in 2021. The article so moved me I wrote a poem based on it which was included in my 2016 poetry collection, Hyaena Season, I have followed Eliza ever since and was anxious to read her second poetry collection IF MEN, THEN published in 2020. One section of that book, featuring “I” as a character/speaker, was published in the New Yorker in September 2019.

Eliza’s poem throws me back to my time spent in Goma, DR Congo where Eliza’s  old song, If Men, Then plays out in awful technicolour. Especially rape as a weapon of war. And at a hospital in Goma I experienced the consequences of this kind of war for women. And just what an image of terror a being called a man can be, no matter the age. This was delivered like a punch in a movie filmed at that hospital.

This moment in the film LUMO (2007) is electrifying and terrifying. Lumo, the woman featured in the film, grabs a little boy of three or four on the grounds of the Heal Africa hospital in Goma, DR Congo, and calls him an interhamwe, a reference to a member of the terrorizing roving paramilitary bands still active today in Eastern DR Congo where a large U.N. force struggles to keep the peace.  It is estimated more than six million have died in DR Congo from war and its consequences of disease and hunger since 1994. The original interhamwe bands entered DR Congo after the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Lumo was at Heal Africa after a sixth or seventh unsuccessful fistulla repair. Some years before she and some of her friends had been brutally raped by Interhamwe soldiers and she had suffered a traumatic fistulla, a ripping from  the vagina which causes urinary or rectal incontience. She had been abandonned by her fiancée after this and forced to leave her village.

I met Lumo after the film about her was made.  She is a charming and hopeful woman who eventually had succesful surgery! The scene in the movie riveted me because  that boy she grabbed and shook was male, someone, when he became older, who would be capable of becoming a soldier and rapist. The horrible irony is that young boy quite likely had a mother who had been raped which is why she might have been at the hospital. Rape has been a tool of war in so many battlegrounds but especially in the battleground of eastern DR Congo.

This is where Eliza Griswold’s poem comes into play for me with its horrifying title: If Men, Then. Men as soldiers, men as violent, men, once innocent boys. Seeing Lumo view that boy as a potential enemy, as a potential weapon of war, was startling for me. My own masculinity making me a symbol of something dangerous and life-threatening.  In places where Eliza has worked as a writer and journalist and where I visited in DR Congo numerous times, that symbol carries extra charge.

To now read Victoria Redel’s poem feels meant to be. It gives a shift into a more nuanced look at the reality of men. It is important that both poems were written by women and as Padraig said in his discussion of Victoria’s poem it would be problematic if written by a man. For me it carries so much more force written by a woman who opens a much more complex and empathetic discussion about men than Eliza’s poem. But I can imagine Eliza’s poem as starting point for Victoria’s. The two poems make up a powerful conversation.

Speaking of Men

Then began the exemptions.

My sons. Your brothers. Grandfathers who left
with nothing. A neighbor boy who put hands
to where hands had been put on him. The drugged
boy. Beaten boy. Hunted boy. Lost boy. Starved
boy. Forgotten boy. Skittish boy. Boy of
a mother who had three jobs. Soft boy. Strapped
down boy. Transit boy. Boy who watched what should
never be watched. Boy given the gun. Boy
who can’t sleep remembering what was done
& what he did when the burnt sky fell & he saw

the other broken boys scatter & begin to run.

Victoria Redel from Paradise, Four Way Books, 2022

American novelist and poet, Victoria Redel. Photo Credit: Counterpoint Press

I am not going to try and examine Victoria’s poem in the depth that Padraig did. His examination will become part of a new book on poetry and conflict. But I so appreciate how, unlike Eliza’s poem, it is not condemning. Not so one sided. It broadens the conversation without letting men off the hook. This sobering sentence: Then began the exemptions. Talk about the power of compression!

I like Eliza’s poem because of how direct it is without pulling her punches. There is an awful truth in her poem. This is what men do in war or conflict. But there are exceptions, there are contexts and there are boys/men who suffer from violence as well from the hands of other men. Victoria’s poem opens up the broader conversations around toxic masculinity. A courageous thing to do especially today where so much discussion is polarized.

I am grateful to Eliza and Victoria for their poems. I welcome a discussion about masculinity. Especially when we see a backlash in some countries like Russia and China against so called “soft men”. When I see the hard-faced men, no women, at Putin’s stretched-out tables and the results of their war in Ukraine I know there has to be another way. Another kind of masculine response in the world. Let’s keep talking, let’s keep writing. Men, let’s keep changing.

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