Let’s face it; manhood can be a trap, especially for today’s men. Caught between traditional notions of gender and a changing landscape of social attitudes, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you don’t live up to the male standards of your parents’ generation, you are looked down upon. And yet, you are also expected to stay in step with the latest views about gender, and are expected to understand acceptable and unacceptable behavior in this regard. Those who blunder risk being “canceled.”
These contradictions — and the emotional turbulence they create — are at the heart of Fire and Harmony (ShyMonkey Publishing), a new book of verse by poet A.F. Agui. It’s a straightforward, no-holds-barred kind of poetry that doesn’t linger over pretty imagery and fancy linguistic footwork but instead speaks directly and clearly to the reader about matters of the heart, mind and soul.
The book is divided into five parts or “stages” — “Things of Love,” exploring sexuality and relationships; “Dark Days,” delving into mental states of depression, anxiety and pain; “Push,” a collection of poems around the theme of motivation; “I Am HIM,” a further exploration of manhood; and, finally, “Family,” centered on the experience and meaning of fatherhood. Roughly, these five parts orchestrate a tour through modern manhood, and, one can argue, the evolution of it throughout one’s life.
CONTRADICTIONS AND TRUTHS
The poems bring many paradoxes to light, if not within the same poem, then through multiple poems coming from contrasting viewpoints. There’s the erotic “Peach,” of pleasing one’s partner. And there are also the self-focused carnal demands of “Sing.” There’s this from “Modern Woman”: “at the end of the day / you still want to take half of all I’ve built / you want higher wages / but call me cheap / when I ask to go half on the bills.” Then later on, from the viewpoint of fatherhood in “Teach ‘Em,” there’s this: “Teach ’em, your daughters, / to be women of steel, / …that if there’s a dollar to be made / out there, they can come back with two.”
Such poems grapple with their subject matter on an emotional, primal level that puts aside what’s considered “correct” and “incorrect” in favor of honest introspection and unfettered expression. Along the way, we experience a man’s-eye view of new love and lost love, admiration and jealousy, anger and tenderness, frustration and elation.
Some of the poems are aphoristic — poetry for the age of Instagram — such as this one called “Idle”: Inactivity / is the biggest action / you can take toward / getting everything / you don’t want.” Or this one, called “Could Be”: “Sometimes we fail to see things / for what they are and / for what they could be / because they deviate / from what we want them to be.” Such life lessons demonstrate that inner battles, though full of murky, conflicting and contradictory thoughts and feelings, can lead to moments of clarity and higher wisdom.
EVOLUTION OF MANHOOD THROUGHOUT LIFE
This sense of evolution is nowhere more evident than in the section on “Family,” where fatherhood shifts the perspective away from the self and toward the child. While the lovemaking in the earliest section, “Things of Love,” explores the more carnal aspects, toward the end of the book, the poem “Seed” focuses on its consummation: “Our adventures resulted / in a seed being planted / and you carried it inside / …Together, we will love, / care, and provide / for our piece of the world, / the one who will soon be / the love of our lives.”
In “I Am Who I Am,” another poem appearing early in the book, the narrator rails against such notions of change: “Now you want me to change / because who I am / is not who you want me to be / are you ashamed of me? / … I’ll change who I am / when growth is behind the door, / I’ll embrace the process, / evolve when I’m ready, / and time is right / not when you need or want me to.”
Yet, ready or not, the poems that follow demonstrate that life can and does bring change, and personal evolution isn’t a choice but a necessity to survive and thrive in the midst of it. Fire and Harmony documents that journey — and the ups and downs along the way.
Learn more about A.F. Agui on his BookTrib author profile page.