The poem “Stable” by Randall Mann, featured in the Fall 2012 Kenyon Review, is a masterful and provocative look into human sexuality, longing, and loss … and it is not what it appears to be at first glance.
It progresses naturally, up until the fifth stanza, in which Mann directs readers to replace certain words in previous lines with new ones. I was struck by the sudden, completely unexpected turn the poem takes at this point. Such changes — “For six read seventeen/for microwave read purse” – drastically alter the meaning of the lines, forcing readers to rethink and re-imagine what they had previously pictured. As I read it the first time, I was shocked to find I felt betrayed on a personal level, as though Mann had looked me in the eye and told me a lie. How could…how can he do this? I spluttered silently in the library, angrily clicking my pen. I’ve already made connections! I’ve already found meaning! You can’t just change ‘womb’ to ‘horse’ midway through a poem! But I obeyed direction.
Despite the instructions, however, I could not completely separate my original concepts of the altered lines from my new perception. I picture a boy at age six and at age seventeen in the backyard, a man stealing a hearse and a horse. This double imagery creates an extra, perhaps even third layer to the poem — what is the surface? What is real? — and the combined perceptions of both. Some of the replacements, however, brought up disturbing images. I wasn’t sure what to make of a line changed from “Bloody, slick, and fierce/I slid out of the womb” to “Bloody, slick, and fierce/I slid out of the horse.”
In some ways, I feel the tactic used here reflects the overall theme of the poem. The meaning of the poem is hidden beneath a layer of safe words, just as a young man struggling with his homosexuality might cover up his emotions and desires. Upon his ‘bachelorhood confirmed,’ however, the narrator is free finally to reveal to the reader the actual content—in a way, the poem ‘comes out.’ We discover that the narrator was not six years old and playing in the backyard wearing superhero tights, but was instead seventeen and using voguing (a modern form of dance popular in the LGBT community) to express his sexuality. He does not buy a microwave to warm his ultra-masculine TV dinner—he purchases a purse and has sex with another man. The lines “My underpants were used: he liked that they were small” begins to make sense, in that the speaker is in some sort of erotic relationship with another man.
The poem concludes with two stanzas in which the speaker creates an extended metaphor comparing himself to a horse, speaking to the reader. He seeks attention, “dying to be groomed,” and yet wants the reader (or whoever he is addressing) to promise to refrain from kissing him. There is something deeply lonely about this—it conjures a man who has the desire to be loved, yet cannot accept a truly loving relationship.
The only quibble I have with the poem is that I wish Mann had not provided a substitute word ‘alone’ for ‘Hungry’. I like the idea of “Hungry Man” representing both the hyper-masculine TV dinner and a sexual partner-the idea of hunger being tied in with both food and sex. However, this is based solely on personal preference and a love of punning.