Poem of the Week | March 04, 2019

This week we present “Anti-Ode to the Man-O-War,” a new poem by Benjamin Garcia.

Benjamin Garcia works in HIV/HCV/STD and opioid overdose prevention in the Finger Lakes region of New York. He had the honor of being the 2017 Latinx Scholar at the Frost Place, 2018 CantoMundo Fellow at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, and winner of the 2018 Puerto Del Sol Poetry Contest. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in: American Poetry Review, New England Review, Best New Poets 2018, Palette Poetry, and Boston Review. Find him on twitter: bengarciapoet
Garcia was recently a finalist for Missouri Review’s 2019 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize.

Anti-Ode to the Man-O-War

in the language of hormones // I want to say // I’m sorry
that you don’t know // the gulf between the words // venom

and poison // between // the father the son & the holy
crap I just got stung // let me explain myself // enzymes

are my hello // goodbye // I’ve been told I have a terminal case
of resting bitch face // the facts // there is a difference between

venom & poison // it’s all about who // is doing what to whom
bite me // and it’s called a poison // venom when I bite back

this is what wars have been // fought over // in the holy name of
whose key is unlocking // whose keyhole // another way to think

of them is venoms // are the tops // they’re active and push in
while poisons are the bottoms // the tubers the roots // the locks

of hemlock haired // fuck boys // the cads & the rent-to-owns
you know how I know // you’re a poison // it’s cause you’re lazy

daisy & docile // I lift my sail a while // and why not be
the Portuguese // armored war ship // that’s my namesake

I am small & still // I contain multitudes // I wonder if Whitman
might have meant // dudes he knew // husked & hulled & filled

his debonair // crowned with windswept hair so // devil-may-care
unlikely though it may seem // I’m not the jealous // kind of fish

even if I may not be // kind to you // pain’s the only way I know
flesh from friend // you know a relationship is extra // toxic when

one dolt is left stunned // defenselessly doting // no thanks I am
like the Iberian newt // that would rather push his ribs // through

his own skin // to deliver the venom than // let a man touch me
that’s really fucked // but I don’t know any other joke // except

how does one hug // a box jellyfish // the punchline is you don’t
I bet you didn’t // think this was love // poetry when it started

it isn’t // except I don’t know any other way // to love or to be
loved but for this // I want to be done with you & you // with me

do what the men of war do // to the ripped torso // of the surfer
I won’t let you suffer // alone & not for long // I want to do

with you what I’ve been told // human urine // does to the fists
of pink hydrangeas // in the spring // before the blue blooming


Author’s Note:

Certain animals grip my brain and won’t let go. The man-o-war is one such animal. Except it’s not actually one but many individuals that, working together, give the appearance of being a single animal. Since they don’t survive in captivity, my only chance to see one in person was in Florida in 2018 when I had the fortune of attending the Palm Beach Poetry Festival as a CantoMundo Fellow. When not attending a reading or workshop, I scoured the beach for a man-o-war the way normal folks search for sea glass or bits of coral.

At the time, I had been working on a series of odes that explores our want for language—want in the sense of both desire and lack. These odes are in couplets, which in turn are composed of little fragments working together, not unlike the polyps in a man-o-war. That name! Man-o-war! We actually named it that (a man, probably). This animal that looked to us like a little ship ready for battle. This animal that is not an animal.

The origin of our name for the man-o-war had me thinking of our own personal arsenals. We all develop defenses against others out of self-preservation. Speaking for myself, I have had to unlearn toxic behaviors that were useful to me under certain conditions, such as fending off bullies or guarding my emotions, but not so good for building relationships or intimacy. All of this mixed with the physical beauty and violence of the man-o-war made it a good vehicle for exploring our own desires—to love/hurt, draw/repel, be one/many