Book Review

Christopher Salerno’s The Man Grave is an exercise in duality—in studying the double-edged sword of masculinity within one’s self and the desire to become more vulnerable and soft in a culture of bravado and violence. The collection’s opening poem, “Headfirst,” establishes this immediately when the speaker is a victim of a hit and run. The speaker not only understands himself as a victim—in the back of his mind, he worries that he is also dangerous, as his mother tells him the ways trauma stays inside the body: “a man may leave his voice // inside of a stranger forever, place something / hard as a bone-flecked stone.” After this conversation, the speaker reflects on the ways he may have left his voice, his bearing, on someone else, as he grapples with desire and self-criticism: “I would // have driven high across this enormous / darkness just to watch a woman // unbutton air. I should be writing this / with fear knowing I was danger.” This introduction offers us everything that is at issue for the speaker: his masculinity versus victimhood; his longing for tenderness; and navigating sex, courtship, and parenthood in a patriarchal society.

Salerno explores the conventions and performance of masculinity that we begin enacting in childhood and persist with into adulthood. In the poem “Crawling Back,” he wrestles with the word faggot, the way boys incant it on the playground as part of the lexicon of adolescence: “we all so commonly called each other fag / that if you said it loud every boy standing / on the playground would turn his head around.” Much of the collection feels retrospective, reflecting on the duality of each interaction and second-guessing oneself in hindsight. The speaker remembers the way he brandished the slur while he wondered: “which of us is the faggot.” If he says it loud enough, perhaps his budding masculinity will no longer be suspect. But like the poem’s ending, everyone turns their head anyway. Everyone is ultimately suspect in a culture that thrives on toxic masculinity—they are drawn to the word’s ability to perform masculinity and function as a tool to emasculate others.

These masculine performances continue into adulthood in the poem “The Reenactment,” where the speaker finds himself in the middle of a reenacted historical battlefield, struggling to understand this militarized hobby:

why someone might like to dress up
as the dead, those blown forward
in a crowd of men. Quick fuse:
young man with a bandage
and a period gun sings an anthem
from the archive, steps through
a cloud of cannon smoke.

This poem shows masculinity in the US as an amalgam of nationalism and violence, reaching backward in time for an experience of gender that is rugged and pure, justifying it through an innate desire for war: “every landscape longs / to be a battlefield— rooted in the land.” Yet, all the speaker can see is a longing to “channel the original grief,” reenacting violence being one of the few ways these men can acknowledge their vulnerability.

Seeing men’s attempts at camaraderie and release through war, sports, and dick pics, Salerno’s speaker searches for a different, softer kind of masculinity throughout the collection. He hedges this desire with irony and pop culture references to “beta males” and other images of emasculation, filled with a longing to be desirable by the standards of masculinity, but being repelled, disgusted, and endangered by that very same bar. For example in “Beta Male Notebook” he writes:

I sit on a log and google my uncle’s mug shot. I google my cousin’s mug shot.
From this log I google three of my great uncles’ mug shots.
Cigar guys with big cars and eyes ablaze.

This is almost a poem. It goes something like this: I love soft moss under my feet.
My steps leave a trail of ellipses across the yard where I walk out to surrender
this manliness to the moon, but the moon is already gone.

The speaker compares himself to generations of men before him, legacies and social structures that simultaneously demand and punish masculinity and aggression in men. The speaker attempts to break the cycle many times over—by desiring and loving the soft moss, trying to surrender his masculinity—but giving up his manhood entirely does not seem possible as “the moon is already gone.” There is no one he can pass this masculinity on to, but he can change it, transmute into “ellipses across the yard,” a thoughtful pause, a rejection of impulse.

Tenderness, desire, and loss flow freely throughout the collection, focusing on the body and its medicalization during moments that are “supposed to” feel intimate. A series of poems titled “IVF” explore these contradictions as the speaker has his sperm collected, kissing each medical form “like the scalp of a child” while he sits “in a room full of porn / exhale my own name / the one of that saint who / carried the Christ child / over a swollen river.” He speaks into existence his hope for fatherhood, for his partner’s pregnancy. The body is not only a vessel for violence or courtship or bravado anymore—childhood lessons in masculinity do not prepare one for the emotional tenor of parenthood, especially when the speaker is in the collection-long process of refiguring his gender. This last “IVF” poem concludes this section:

when nothing is even born. Later,
we’ll go blind below the waist. Bodies

two nests swept from the eaves.
Yes, loss is full of new laws: I wake

each morning and in the space
between my legs a fruit bat hangs.

Salerno responds in an interview with Persea Books: “I was horrified because I didn’t even know or understand my own feelings. How could I? Men in my life were not having these kinds of conversations.” This emotional excavation is a constant effort in The Man Grave, but, sometimes these new-discovered emotions remain unnamed, such as in this final “IVF” poem, and are instead expressed through the body, allowing an unnamable grief to settle.

The speaker experiences a kind of rebirth at the end of the collection, inviting the reader to sit with him in a single moment, to come full circle through the seasons that feel “like a whole other gender.” The Man Grave is a burial of the speaker’s manhood—but not as a way to hide it. Salerno’s refiguration of masculinity is one where he studies each handful of soil, meditating on a life molded by gender in a way that can’t be escaped, but can be set down and revisited. He tells us: “You won’t exactly be a child again, but maybe / a boy small for your age, not yet worn / down by manliness or illness.”

About the Reviewer

C. E. Janecek is a Czech-American writer, poetry MFA candidate at Colorado State University, and managing editor of Colorado Review. Janecek’s writing has appeared in Popshot Quarterly, Lammergeier, Peach Mag, Permafrost, and the Florida Review, among others. On Instagram @c.e.writespoems.