Uncle Johnny died after rigid years
of cutting hair in his shop downtown.
Toward the end he cut it badly, breathing
a whisky scent into the tonic, talc and
glossy male curls piling up on the tiled floor.
He died shrivelled, a man who seldom spoke,
still with that nickname, Johnny, last
taciturn hint of a youth who may have been
angry, a lover of women, filled and lightened
by vast ocean, the sky over America.
He spent his time at home, silent,
or sometimes in bars, or on the corner
by King’s Newsstand with others like himself
on sun-baked cement, spitting single words, standing
in dark slacks, short-sleeved shirts and suspenders.
The tall and narrow-waisted new world
had by that time completely rejected suspenders.
And after the funeral Mary, his wife, was crying
and said to me, "Why is it that the men
always die sooner? Do they just give up?"
We stood there in the church of our fathers, who
explained their own deaths, all death, by an ancient crime.
How foolish it would have been to tell you, Mary,
something about dioxyribonucleic acid,
adaptation of the sexes, effects of the hormones,
or social factors, things you’d listen to blankly.
Better to say that what we find in ourselves,
whatever weakness, we ourselves have put there.
Both of us knew enough about men’s weakness.
Your question didn’t need an answer: I
simply shrugged and silently, without real hope,
asked to be absolved from the fault of men:
Powers of earth, give me the male strength
that we desire, kindly strength, which protects.
Don’t make my wife a nurse, helplessly
to watch me dying drunk and before her.
And do not punish me for pride because
I’ve asked to be so strong: to be the last.