Wore Dresses

Mailer is wrong, isn’t he
about tough guys, Charlie,
you and Papa both debuting
in skirts then going on
to help define the lay
of the land beneath,
giving weight to the roll
of flesh without bone
we can feel in our hands
without touching, by
senses alone.

Papa, your mother
decked you out in dresses
not because she yearned
for daughters in her life
but irony, the sense
of doing right even
when doing wrong. Genteel
Michigan doctor’s wife
that she was, she sought
romantic tension, not merely
romance, giving you the idea.

In my day, we learned
to dance at school, in
gym class, scornful boys
paired with girls shy
but arrogant with secrets
of sex only they knew,
secrets we could only
guess at, gasp at like rarefied
air on Kilimanjaro until
we found our own footing,
took our own forms of flight.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “Wore Dresses”?

I often write poems sparked by something I read in the newspaper—that’s how this one came about, after reading a story about Charles Bronson, a tough guy movie actor from the ’60s and ’70s.

What poetic techniques did you use in “Wore Dresses”?

I use a “direct address” form here, talking first to Bronson, then to Ernest Hemingway, the great writer who often wrote about themes that reflected on masculinity. The reference at the opening to Mailer is to Norman Mailer, another novelist concerned with issues of manliness. “Kilimanjaro” is a reference to a famous Hemingway story about a dying hunter. The poem winds up becoming a meditation on masculinity, but in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek tone.

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