publication date: Tue Feb 01 2022
Mainstreet Rag - 2022
A new chapbook available on Mainstreet Rag.
In the concentration of these pieces, our poet maneuvers through life—as bereaved, as father, as brother, as son—traversing narrative after narrative and landing, each time on poignancy, heartbreak, grief, epiphany. Steve Henn in American Male takes us through adolescent venoms into adulthood doubts, deaths, and dilemmas, asking “How In God’s Holy Name is This Boy Ever Going to Survive?” Henn then helps us, his readers unearth that amidst hurt and cruelty and high school, there’s a little hope, somehow, in the darkness: even if we search for it in strawberry pop or inside the St. Louis Arch. ~Erica Anderson-Senter, author of Midwestern Poet’s Incomplete Guide to Symbolism from EastOver Press, 2021
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American Male Review by Ed Werstein first appeared in Highland Park Poetry (highlandparkpoetry.org).
I believe that a little humor can be an effective tool in poetry, making the poem more memorable. In Steve Henn’s poem, “I Could Have Said This But Instead Controlled Myself,” the opening poem in his collection, American Male, Henn uses humor to good effect. In it the speaker speculates about the nature of God: maybe God loves sports, maybe God loves a champion who gloats, maybe God loathes humility, etc. My favorite lines were these:
The Nuclear Arms Race
jolts up God like
an eleven year old in front
of a tv-full of pro wrestling
sucking down his fifth
can of Jolt! Soda”.
An absurd idea, right? The irony is that religious differences are one of the main things that human beings have warred about throughout history. That kind of pointed humor permeates the poems in this collection. The next poem, “Are You Picking Up What I’m Putting Down?”, contains the lines:
“...isn’t it just like a man to require
reassurance when pretty much the only problem is
he’s being an idiot?…"
This poem also contains the term “toxic masculinity,” and that is what American Male is, an indictment of toxic masculinity. This book explores the many facets of male toxicity from the relatively harmless adolescent pranks of the high school locker room, to the cruel (sometimes bordering on criminal) abuse of both men and women. And in the poem, “A Small Reckoning or Bob-O-Matic”, he lays it right out:
“...this type of thing was always done
While the collection is permeated with effective uses of humor, that is not to say that there are not poignant and downright serious looks at the various manifestations of maleness. To me the title poem, incorporates all of these to great effect. In the first stanza he describes:
“adults who determined that unleashing
a hypercompetitive 9-yr-old contestant
nearly foaming at the mouth
with crazed lust to possess
whatever ball happened to be in play
and put it right where it belonged
would prepare him admirably
for 21st Century American capitalism
or prison or the Senate…”
I find that funny and deadly serious at the same time. This poem also contains one of the most memorable lines in the entire book: “What nascent genius saddled the American Male with yardwork?” I’d like to know the answer to that question too.
Henn goes into detail about why he doesn’t fish and doesn’t golf. His temper is one factor, but I found one of the other reasons that he doesn’t golf the most compelling:
“The President plays golf too.
Any President. Take your pick.
And there I rest my case
‘cause no ambitious 9-yr-old
with his faculties in tact, capitalist
or otherwise, wants to grow up
imitating that buffoon.”
Henn’s careful titling of his poems added to my enjoyment of this collection. Sometimes I don’t think poets pay enough attention to choosing the right title for what they write. Henn does. From the evocative: “World’s #1 Dad”, and “Once We Got It, We Don’t Want It”; to the humorous,: “How in God’s Holy Name Is This Boy Ever Going to Survive”, and “They Mustache Him Some Questions”, about the deposition of mustachioed National Security Advisor, John Bolton, by the committee investigating a possible Trump impeachment, I was often drawn right into a poem by the title even before reading the first line.
These are important poems written at a time when America is waking up to a problem we need to solve. They are both personal and universal, and delivered with a dollop of humor. I highly recommend this book.===ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Ed Werstein, is a Board member of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets. In 2018 he won the Lorine Niedecker Prize for poetry from the Council for Wisconsin Writers, judged by Nickole Brown. He lives in Milwaukee. www.edwerstein.com.