The decision to cut the dick was a no-brainer, and it might have been the wrong decision.
After my poem “With” appeared in The Threepenny Review thirty years ago—it’s the first poem in my new book Plain Talk Rising—a reader found my phone number and called to say she liked the poem and that it was brave of me to publish it. I didn’t agree, and I don’t recall asking what she meant, but I assumed she was referring to the fact that the poem’s protagonist (all right, author) describes rolling onto his side, in bed as a teenager, “to hide the erection” from his mother, who is there to wake him. The reader/caller was also interested in the biographical note, which said that I was working at a Boston-area school for autistic and developmentally-disabled children.
One of the “low functioning” children was a pre-pubescent twelve-year-old boy with the mind and language of a five-year-old. Or so we thought. One day when the girls and boys were separated, he asked me why some words for “private parts” were “appropriate” while others were not. I said something about adults needing to make rules. I was in my mid-twenties. I didn’t try to address connotation, much less tone, something I still struggle to characterize. “Tone” doesn’t refer to quite the same thing in music as it does in poems, but in both, I think, mastery of it is what separates the men from the boys.
My friend Laura Wittner, Argentine poet, sent me this message while translating “Perforated Evening,” which is also in Plain Talk Rising:
“I always have this problem when I need to translate ‘dick.’ Because here, in rioplatense Spanish, let us say, we have ‘pito’ (which sounds childish, really, it’s what little kids say, but also some adults—I’ve heard my dad say it once or twice), and ‘pija,’ which is what we adults say, though not all of us, because it can sound offensive in a way I don’t think ‘dick’ does. For instance, I always said ‘pija’ but when I met _____ I found out he almost never said it and can’t help but show some disgust when I say it…
“Of course there are other words, like ‘verga,’ which is what I ultimately use in translations because it is understood everywhere. But, for me, it is even more gross (!) than ‘pija.’
“So. Does “dick” have at least a little element of grossness?”
Laura went with “pija.” In the English—“piss trickling from an old man’s dick”—the word was never in question.
In “With,” after several years, “erection” seemed problematic. “Hard-on” and “boner” were no better. But, really, the issue was larger than the single word. Readers of the earlier version might hear the testing of tonal boundaries, impossible to show clearly with excerpts:
Less often (more often) her hand on my chest,
to my shoulder then onto my back as I
rolled onto my side, knees up, then stomach,
to hide the erection, wanting her
or myself to not exist . . .
and always the smell, lipstick and coffee . . .
Hello again object of my hesitant infatuation . . .
Eventually I removed the word, the explicitness, and a couple of stanzas, including the lines now shown here. Was it out of embarrassment that I hid the hiding, or was I right about the faulty tone? Or are these the same question? I’m not the best judge. Maybe I didn’t make the poem better or worse but simply made an “alternate take,” a possibility and practice that always intrigued me on jazz albums.
Writing words which refer to things is one thing. Revising the words is another thing. And reflecting on reasons for the revisions is several more.
Johnson, willie, pee-pee, cock, prick, schmuck; genitals, Genesis, genius, pathogen, gentle, engender.
Plain Talk Rising opens with “With,” as a boy retreats from the mother’s touch. It closes with the prose “Water and Light,” in which a father-to-be is sent back home through time, to where someone _“_snipped a clipping from his clapper just to show that he was hers.”
“I was a body inside of my body,” says one narrator in these poems.
I think he thought that the appropriate words might bring the two together. I can’t be sure of that either, though. It seems like he’s still hiding something.
The Threepenny Review_ archives are available through JSTOR and the magazine’s website. “Perforated Evening” first appeared at Fascicle; “Water and Light” appeared on Word Riot. The latter two websites are, at this writing, defunct or on hiatus. I am grateful to all three editors: Wendy Lesser, Tony Tost, and Jackie Corley, respectively._
Mark Dow’s writing has appeared in PN Review (UK), The Threepenny Review, Boston Review, and elsewhere. He is author of American Gulag: Inside US Immigration Prisons (2004) and co-editor of Machinery of Death: The Reality of America’s Death Penalty Regime (2002). His poetry collection Plain Talk Rising was a finalist for the Colorado Prize for Poetry, the New Issues Poetry Prize, and the Yale Series competition and a semifinalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press. He teaches English at Hunter College in New York. (updated 9/2018)