By: Santiago Eastman Herrera
Photo Credits: Unsplash
In a strange coincidence, I was walking through Concordia’s English department near the end of term when I happened to see several books just thrown on a shelf. One of them, Home Court Poems by Ben Alfaro and José Olivarez, was a book of poetry centered around what it means to be a man (specifically a Hispanic man growing up in the New England area). In today’s climate especially, I knew the topic could be hit or miss, but the more I read, the more I fell in love with the collection. The two poets do such a good job navigating the confusing and rough world of feeling “othered” that I couldn’t put the book down. What does it mean to love someone from a different race, surrounded by members of that race looking down on you? What does it mean to grow up poor but with big aspirations? What does it mean to be a man and a poet?
The idea of masculinity has always garnered lots of focus, but the conversation has altered quite a bit in the last century or two. Prior to the 1700s, the man of the house was judged based on his ability to be the reigning patriarch, the person with control over his household. Valor was the word of the day, with a man's ability to provide and be honorable of the utmost importance. Masculinity was tied to a man's actions—how courageous he was—instead of how effeminate he was not. In fact, femininity and masculinity weren't seen as opposites at all until the British Reformation kicked in and we started seeing characters like the fop or the rake appear in plays and theater (“History of Masculinity,” p. 6).
Even further back, in the Ancient Greek city-states, the concept of masculinity changed depending on which society you were in. For Spartans, a true man based himself on Achilles: strong, agile, the best warrior on the field. A man was supposed to show arete (roughly: “virtue”) in battle, but also not be afraid to weep over a deceased loved one. Yes, you read that correctly. Men were not only allowed to show emotion, they were encouraged to (Karcher, “Masculinity in Ancient Greece”). Stoicism as a practice didn’t occur until after Plato’s generation centered the concept of masculinity around metis (cunning or intelligence). Now it was the philosopher figure who was the manliest. With the decline of war and rise of philosophy, the man who was the most learned, the most persuasive in court, the best politician was the one at the top of society.
Fast forward a couple of centuries to the 1700s. Britain has transitioned from the Reformation with the rise of Protestantism to the Enlightenment. Due to imperialistic practices and constant warfare, money was pouring into the massive empire, which allowed the British to create one of the most powerful navies in the world. In large part due to the massive wave of seamen everywhere, the concept of masculinity has changed again. Instead of polite, well-read men, the pinnacle of masculinity now centered around rough, battle-hardened navy officers who could protect Britain’s future (“History of Masculinity,” p. 14). Somewhere around here, the idea of masculinity starts being compared against femininity and “softer” forms of manliness, which bled into the negative stereotypes of a homosexual man. A polite man, one who was finely dressed and could read and write in French, was seen not only as weak but as a danger to Britain (which crystallized with the Oscar Wilde trials at the end of the 19th century). Starting to see a pattern here?
Each time the concept of masculinity changes from a rough and rowdy warrior type to an intellectual one, it inevitably swings back in times of distress or war. The poet, therefore, in documenting where the masculine needle falls (so to speak), has to straddle this line carefully to fully demonstrate the current cultural zeitgeist. At the moment, poets are seen as weak, more effeminate. (Going into my degree, I had to work on my own expectations. I didn't want people to think I wore turtlenecks and quoted Yeats all the time.) I have a particular memory of being in a class and when it came time to introduce myself, I was the only one in the group of 30+ students that used he/him pronouns. Thus, when I saw Home Court Poems, I was elated.
I snatched the collection up as soon as I saw it. A book of poetry? Written by two straight men? About becoming men without all the toxic masculinity potholes that can arise? It was almost too good to be true. One poem in particular really captivated me: “Ode to a Straight Razor Shave” by José Olivarez.
Praise the lather. The soft, warm, white cloud
on my face. Praise the barber. Praise his hands,
how they hold my face like my lover holds my face
before she kisses me, and thank god
my barber can look at this face, unshaven, unmanicured,
hairs wild and still see me the way my lover sees me
with undeserved kindness and tender eyes.
Praise his vision. Praise his hands
again. How they shape my face into something
my lover will want to hold and kiss. Praise his jokes,
how they clean the mean mug off my face.
Praise the straight razor, its glorious edge,
how it licks the lather off, but rarely nicks. Praise
the straight razor in my barber’s hands, how he uses it
to make the ordinary a little more handsome. Praise
his skill, the line up always on point, the symmetry,
the mathematics of his practice. Praise anything
that can make me look in the mirror and smile.
In this poem, Olivarez takes a fairly regular occurrence—going to a barbershop—and elevates it into a special act of kinship between two men. The barber is no longer just a person providing a service, but a mirror that lets the speaker of the poem see himself in the best possible light. The barber, much like the razor, has become a tool that lets the speaker take pride in and feel wonderful in his own masculinity. In just 12 sentences, Olivarez shows a softer side, foregoing constant meter or rhyme to repeat a word over and over again: “Praise.” What really gets me is the lack of fear—the poet isn't afraid to show sentimentality or emotion, even if it's for another man.
Also growing up Hispanic in the States, I often felt like I wasn’t supposed to or wasn’t allowed to show my appreciation for other men, even if they were important to me. Men didn’t show emotions. They were supposed to be stoic, able to take whatever life threw at them without falter or complaint. They were the rocks on which everything else was built. The machismo of Hispanic culture collided with the white puritanical need for personal space in the States and created this weird pocket of behaviors that I couldn’t do. As Alex Manley notes in his book, The New Masculinity, “… to be a man is to be defined not by what you do but by what you don’t do” (p. 29). Men don’t hug other men. They don’t tell each other they like having them as a friend or say they love them (platonically). Men don’t get lonely—even though we very much do.
“Ode to a Straight Razor Shave” means a lot to me, because it’s proof that none of that is true. It shows an ideal world where men can and do show their appreciation for each other without the fear of catching The Gay (™). It, along with seeing how masculinity was viewed in various historical periods, shows me the potential to envision manhood differently. Instead of defining masculinity by what it’s not (soft, gentle, emotional), we can choose to reevaluate the category. I don’t think of myself as a man because I’m not a woman; I’m a man because I choose to be one—whatever that means to me. Masculinity and femininity aren’t opposites. They often can (and should!) work together to create fully fleshed-out, interesting human beings.
Hopefully, we’ll get to live in a world where the concept of masculinity will allow for more of that. I at least am excited to see what the future holds—and what better time to show my appreciation than the holidays? For those of you still reading, I hope the end of the year brings about new (good) change and new ways to express yourself.
Alfaro, Ben, and José Olivarez. “Ode to the Straight Razor Shave.” Home Court: Poems, Red Beard Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 2014, pp. 49.
Harvey, Karen. “The History of Masculinity, circa 1650–1800.” Journal of British Studies, vol. 44, no. 2, 2005, pp. 296–311. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.1086/427126.
Karcher, Kris. “Talk Nerdy to Me: Azuka’s Dramaturgy Corner (Masculinity in Ancient Greece).” Azuka Theatre, 31 Oct. 2018, www.azukatheatre.org/blog/2018/10/24/talk-nerdy-to-me-azukas-dramaturgy-corner-masculinity-in-ancient-greece.
Manley, Alex. The New Masculinity: A Roadmap for a 21st-Century Definition of Manhood. ECW Press, 2023.