Quite by accident some months ago I ran into a poem online with the curious but appealing title, "The Man I Was Supposed to Be." I read the poem through and found its directness and verity to be exceptionally appealing. You may have had a similar experience; that of occasionally reading a poem so compelling and thought-provoking that you felt it could have been written for you personally.
The titular poem from Poet John Struloeff’s new book, The Man I Was Supposed to Be is reproduced in its entirety below.
The man I was supposed to be works
in a small cedar mill in Oregon.
The heel of his left boot is worn smooth
by the way the engage lever makes him stand,
the shift he has to make, grinding his heel,
a slow turn as the log carriage feeds the wood
that will shriek against the rolling blade.
He watches the blade eight hours a day,
and when he goes home to sleep,
he sees the blade rolling in the dark.
The man I was supposed to be has two sons,
and when his youngest is loud he twists his ear,
watching for the boy’s eyes to well with tears.
Knock off the racket, he says. The TV’s on.
If the boy does it again, he grabs him by his hair,
drags him to his room, then watches TV in silence,
the way it is supposed to be.
The man I was supposed to be buys beer in a case
and drives around at night, looking for a friend
to drink it with. He drinks until his face is numb
and awakens on the cement floor of his garage,
lying flat on his back, his arms spread.
Both of his hands are bleeding.
The man I was supposed to be tracks deer
on the leaf-covered trails behind his house.
There is a doe ahead of him somewhere,
and he kneels to place his fingertips on its tracks.
That night he will smell the rawness of warm bone
and blood. It will hang in his garage seven days
until he begins to separate the loosened joints
and carefully strip the flesh. He will do it alone,
at night, his forearms and hands coated in blood.
Like the stink of beer-sweat and fresh cedar dust,
this odor will stay in his skin for days.
I searched for and readily found other examples of John Stuloeff’s work. His poetry is as vigorous and muscular as the lumberjacks and salmon fishermen he often writes of in his new collection. He views them with a rare perceptiveness, never sentimentalizing his subjects, though his work demonstrates respect and affection.
They fly down from the mountains
in their high-rise trucks with half-mufflers
rumbling and rattling, burnt diesel
trailing, scenting the air until long after
they’ve passed. It is Friday,
and shortly after you sit at the bar,
numb and sore from flipping sticks
at the mill, their trucks will roar
into the gravel lot, and they will park
at the far edge and slam their doors.
They talk and laugh loud
like veterans of an artillery unit,
and when they push through the door,
they’re all you hear.
They smell like overheated engines
and moss, and wherever they stand or sit
they shed wood chips and fine dust,
order mugs of watered sap,
tell stories metered in board-feet.
Mondays, after they’ve returned from hidden
lives in houses far in the trees,
they chew their sandwiches in the Mini-Mart,
looking out at their trucks beneath the cloudy skies.
They are trying to remember the trees
yet to be faced, sawed, and felled.
They are still feeling the jump
and kick and hum of the saws
in their hands. Too soon, the crew chief
starts his truck, and as it idles—
the knock-knock of diesel—the others
rise and ease their way outside,
nodding at the young woman cashier.
Their trucks clatter to life,
and they all back away and bump
onto the road, snarling and rasping
back up into the trees
Perfect metaphors such as “stories metered in board-feet” above are a recurrent factor in Struloeff’s poetry. Also, on a personal note, the two lines, “They talk and laugh loud/like veterans of an artillery unit” constitute a perceptive gem for this reviewer. As an adolescent Marine, I helped crew a twin five-inch naval artillery turret. The Veterans Administration now provides my hearing aids.
Struloeff’s poem “Knee-Deep in the Pacific” is a remarkably poignant take on an aging parent:
Knee-Deep in the Pacific
Twenty years ago
my father described a picture
he’d taken in Korea, the forests burning,
the crackling of gunfire
like branches popping in the wind.
He did not want to forget
the day so many friends had died.
But he had forgotten
the film, left it to burn
in the pocket of his uniform
in a fire meant to kill lice and disease.
Now he sees things he can’t describe,
no picture to show, or explain.
Thirty years after Korea,
he liked to split wood for days alone,
and he would try to answer
questions of a ten year-old son, wanting to give
something I could hold onto when he was gone.
Now I return this Christmas
from years away,
and he is old
and thinks he will take me clamming once,
one thing he has never shown me.
He describes clams as big as my forearm
as we drive onto the sand
and as we wade out into the ocean.
But my father has forgotten the lantern,
and the sun has just set, the roiling water
calm for a moment, the sand
darkening like a blackened highway.
Our jackets flap in the wind,
our knees bend against the drawing surf.
He purses his lips and shakes his head,
saying without words for the hundredth time:
he has forgotten.
So when we can no longer see our truck
or our feet beneath us,
we still stand in the ocean.
A city of lights scatters along the surf-break,
men, families, all waiting
for the surf to recede
so they can begin searching this darkness
Struloeff is known for his fiction and creative nonfiction as well as poetry. Struloeff’s short fiction collection, Animals was a semifinalist for the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award.
Dr. Struloeff is the director of the creative writing program at Pepperdine University, Malibu, California. Born in Nebraska, he grew up in Northwest Oregon. He earned his BA from Oregon State University and his MA and PhD from the University of Nebraska Lincoln. His distinctions include being a Wallace Stegner Fellow for two years at Stanford University. His fiction and poetry has appeared in such venues as The Atlantic Monthly and too many others to list here. He lives with his wife and son in the foothills of Southern California’s Santa Monica Mountains.
The Man I Was Supposed to Be.
Loom Press: Lowell, Massachusetts, 2008.
ISBN 978 0 931507 21 2.
Soft Cover, 53 Pages.
The above poems are reprinted here with the gracious permission of Poet John Struloeff.
John R. Guthrie is a former Marine infantry rifleman. He then garnered a formal education to include medical school and became the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy Reserve Shock Surgical Group before going into private practice in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Appalachia. He is the editor and publisher of the monthly webzine The Chickasaw Plum: Politics and the Arts Online. (Link)