On Taylor Mali’s Poems: “The Penis Warriors” and “Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh-Grade Warrior”

By Aksel Reid

These two poems reveal the positive effects of an all-male school full of teens and pre-teens learning how to grow up. The idea that all masculinity is toxic masculinity is dismantled in these poems as Mali reveals stories from his life experiences of boys becoming comfortable in their masculine skin while still supporting one another, developing a love of learning, and forming a strong bond between everyone. 

“The Penis Warriors” is the story of thirteen year old boys learning that the word “gladiator” is from the Latin word gladius. This word means sword as well as penis. This idea is the basis of the whole poem. Thirteen year old boys learning that gladiators are technically penis warriors is life changing for them. Since the new knowledge is so hilarious to them they learn to love learning Latin and can be inferred that in future classes they will continue to be thrilled by learning the roots of other English words that come from Latin. The poem then goes to a second scene where they are in a class taught by a female teacher who doesn’t understand what teaching a group of teenage boys is like and becomes flustered when the boys tell her their newfound information about gladiators. The bond created by these boys through their vast genitalia knowlege, despite probably being seen as inappropriate and stupid by outsiders, brings these boys together in a new way. 

“Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh-Grade Viking Warrior” is another poem about the unity of these boys. This poem is the story of a boy, Tony Steinberg, who is diagnosed with cancer and after going through some chemotherapy returns to school bald. The teachers tell the students to not laugh or bully his bald head in any way and to just ignore it. The boys, however, go completely in the opposite direction. Instead of ignoring the baldness that would make Tony stick out, they all shave their heads in support of Tony. When Tony returns to school everyone is laughing at each other about their baldness rather than all ignoring or laughing at Tony. Since all the boys are laughing at each other nobody is directly being laughed at and everyone is just laughing together. The poem ends with the knowledge that Tony passes away from cancer and at the funeral all his classmates are together with now crew cuts. The idea of a shared suffering or ridicule is found in many all boy groups (particularly frats or sports teams). From the outside these practices might seem horrible or damaging; however, the shared suffering brings these boys together and makes them brothers instead of acquaintances. 

Masculinity can be incredibly healthy and beneficial when presented and practiced in the right way. Encouraging camaraderie, friendship, and love is vital for these boys to develop into healthy men that make the world a better place. Trying to prevent these boys from expressing their masculinity would only make them unable to identify what is healthy and what is not which ultimately would lead their masculinity to be toxic.

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