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Patrick Lawler


How to b a Man (Assembly)

Fearful I will be led in
directions I never intended,

I think of my father
being lost in New Guinea.
It was during World War II.
He was on a mission—a patrol.
For a week he wandered in the jungle.

Only two of them came back.

My father said he could
not remember any of it.
Amnesia, he said.

Sometimes, when my father wasn’t drunk,
he’d wake up shaking and screaming.
And we knew New Guinea
was trying to get out.

Joseph Campbell tells of a New Guinea
ritual where six or so boys
in their initiation into manhood
make love to this woman dressed as a deity
under a roof of enormous logs.

I often wondered what happened
to my father for those seven days.
Suppose everything I ever was
came out of what was hidden
in my father’s head.

He would show us pictures of aborigines.
He also had this one picture
of a man who’d just had his head
cut off. It lay in his lap
with two spurts of blood
shooting from his neck.
A decapitated Buddha.
He could never tell us much
about the picture. Who was the victim?
Who was the man who swung the axe?

We looked at the picture
the same way we looked at our father:
with disgust and awe—
with a kind of reverence.

According to Campbell, while the last
boy was making love to the woman,
the heavy log roof would collapse
killing the couple—a union of beginning
and end, of begetting and death.

My father always wanted me
to write a novel about his life.
But the only thing I ever cared about
was what had happened in New Guinea.
How many people died? How did they die?
What did my father do? What did he see?

My father’s whole life collapsed
in those buried memories.

Later, according to Campbell,
the couple who had made love
and died are pulled out from
under the heavy logs and eaten.
That’s what we do with the great
mysteries that surround us.
We devour them or they devour us;
we make them part
of us or we’re lost inside them forever.

If I were to write that novel,
it would be about death and sex and time.
It would occur in the middle
of a rainforest—in a sacred spot
where death could occur at any moment.

And it would begin and end with these words:
“All my life I will be afraid I’m lost.
All my life I will be afraid I’m found.”

And I am there
in my father’s life, sitting crosslegged
with my head lying in my lap.
Maybe I am a man
who has just made love to a deity.
Maybe I am a man
whose head has fallen off.

The whole mystical green world
spins around me. Confused with fever,
my father arrives, dazed, jittery.
I want to offer him something to eat
and tell him it is ok to be afraid. I want
to warn him not to leave this place.