Sunday, August 19, 2001

Poetry Clinic: Father's Milk

Some time ago, when beloved Tom was first soliciting (oo-er) articles for the webzine, one of his suggested topics was
Everything you ever wanted to know about male nipples but were afraid to ask.

Well, now. I can't speak for everyone, mind you... But

  • I started wearing undershirts—usually sleeveless old-man undershirts—a few years ago, because my nipples chafed like a bastard.
  • I have always worn my guitar slung low, like a punk rocker, even though I'm primarily an acoustic player, in order to avoid "guitarist's nipple," which complaint is not uncommon.
  • Someone else who wears his guitar slung low is Joe Perry.
  • Although I usually have the decency to cover up, Joe often performs shirtless--so you really can't help but notice his nipples, the areolae of which are very large and dark: a local radio commentator once referred to them as "tomato slices."
  • A good friend of mine has three. He is also red-haired and left-handed, and three hundred years ago would doubtless have been burned as a witch.
  • A truly remarkable thing happened to my left nipple exactly five years ago, shortly after my daughter was born, and I wrote this poem about it...

... which is my sneaky way of ushering in a belated edition of the Poetry Clinic.

Father’s Milk

This girl-child, born in August, so bereft
of fortune as to be my daughter—
an angel sired somehow by an ass.
That’s got to hurt; I’m just doing my best
to take away the sting.

When the nights are hot, these first weeks,
and none of us can sleep, I rise
in swampy undershorts, and wander
rooms made unfamiliar by fatigue,
singing Irish songs to the angel
in my arms, hoping the baritone buzzing
of my chest will render her insensible.

Her little head is to my left breast,
to hear the beating of my heart.
Her cries are tiny, animal sounds,
the bleating of the holy lamb.
She twists in my embrace,
her head on its boneless neck a-thrash
from side to side. And then—

a shock; her lips fall slick
with spittle to my slack and
useless tit. I protest—but
my nip, such as it is
and ringed in fur, is in her mouth
and her tongue a-tease in vain
for milk. She hoovers til I yelp
in pain and break the seal, and
that hurts even worse.

There is tender absurdity
in this, but also shame—just as
when I bathe her (and at this age,
the easiest way’s to draw a bath,
get in oneself, and hold her
in one’s lap), I tuck the apostrophe
of my sex between parenthetical
parental thighs—you never know what
will come up on the therapist’s couch,
thirty years from now—and don’t say
anything I wouldn’t want to hear
read back in court. The ass
saw the angel, and it gave him pause.

Warm water laps her rose-petal skin
soaping her delicate creases
and my coarseness and scars.
Hot water in August. Steam.
Sweat beads on my collarbone,
and I come from the bath
more wilted than before.

And when her lips implore
these buttons, pink and pointless
vestigial mammalian, I wonder
what do I have to offer? what suckle
can I give fit for this angel?

I will sing to her, and fill her head
with poetry and hero tales. But is that
what she requires of me? What’s a father for?
What good, if any, will she draw from me,
now hunched sore and hurting, helpless
to give her what she needs?

Will this be how it always is? Will she
Connect with me mistakenly,
hungering for something
that I cannot give? but even so,
connect—and even so
it hurts to break the bond.

for Pamela Glenn Menke
and Claire Meredith Feerick

What do you think, sirs?

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