You learn how to be a man from your father.
Your mother teaches you how to be a woman.
You have to fear becoming an old man
before you’ll take on the wiles of the mother—
her movements, gestures, the way her face
suddenly, at odd moments, becomes your face
Turns out that old adage about saving face
was really about saving the face of the father.
His was the look you wanted on your face
whenever you’d realize you were a woman.
Those moments shocked you—and your mother,
who’d assumed you’d turn out to be a man
But it’s not that you haven’t ended up a man:
mornings you shave, staring into a man’s face;
you have the proper attitude toward your mother.
You just don’t want to be a man like your father,
and the best way to do that is to be a woman.
The first time you saw this happen in your face,
it scared you; your hand flew up to your face.
Not only did you have the cunning of a man,
now you also had the guile of a woman.
You look into the mirror at your new face,
one begun the night it surprised your father,
humping a blanket that turned into your mother.
How could the bastard do that to your mother?
And why had you never seen this in her face?
What was it you saw next day in your father?,
A look that told you he was the better man?
And what do you think he saw in your face?
Did he know then that you were a woman?
You repressed that morning in the way a woman
might repress an impractical love for a man.
When he’s around, you can see it in her face—
her Don’t-trust-him-but-still-love-him face.
Your father never thought of you as a man.
It was natural you’d try to seduce your father.
First you showed your father your “mother” face;
but then you showed him your other face,
the sly face a man wears when he’s a woman.
-- James Cummins
from the Antioch Review, Summer 2004, v. 62, no. 3, and Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man (Soft Skull, 2006), a collaboration with David Lehman.
Note by Judith Hall:
Some poems benefit from silence, from being read alone, and Cummins’s sestina is an example. Alone, Tiresias’ desires, his dilemmas, amuse, yes, but also resonate, nauseate, and recollect the value of a life examined.
Some readers claim that character matters little in a culture enamored of fate or, in our case, entertainment. Alone, reading such a claim – a desire? – a reader could marvel at this latest “reality” desire mars.
Is a blog too cacophonous a context to remember silence in and solitude? Or “soliturd”, as originally typed . . . Why not print out Cummins’ sestina, turn off your computer, and read “Tiresias” among Thanksgiving memories?