Listen to Michael Ryan reading this poem. A man who's trying to be a good man but isn't, because he can't not take whatever's said to him as judgement. It causes him, as he puts it, to react. His face and neck redden and bloat, a thick blue vein bulges up his forehead and bisects his bald pate, scaring his children but provoking hilarity at work where one guy likes to get his goat by pasting pro-choice bumper stickers on his computer screen while he's in the john, then gathers a group into the next cubicle to watch when he comes back. He has talked to his minister and to his wife about learning how not to react, to make a joke, and he has tried to make jokes, but his voice gets tense, they come out flat, so even his joke becomes a joke at his expense, another thing to laugh at him about. He has thought to turn to them and ask, Why don't you like me? What have I done to you? But he has been told already all his life: self-righteous goody two-shoes, a stick up your ass. They are right. He has never never never gotten along. He says nothing this time, just peels off the bumper sticker, crumples it gently, and places it gently by his mousepad to dispose of later properly, comparing his suffering to Christ's in Gethsemane spat upon and mocked (his minister's advice), and tries a smile that twists into a grimace, which starts the hot blood rising into his face. This is what they came for, to see dickhead, the bulging vein, the skull stoplight-red, and indeed it is remarkable how gorged it gets as if his torso had become a helium pump, so, except for him whose eyes are shut tight, they burst into laughter exactly at the moment cruelty turns into astonishment.
Michael Ryan is the director of the MFA program in poetry at the University of California Irvine. His new book of poems is This Morning.
Clickhere to visit Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project site.To submit poetry to Slate, send up to five poems and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: Robert Pinsky, Slate Magazine, Boston University, 236 Bay State Road, Boston, MA, 02215.