Rising Like Smoke: Middle School Masculinity in Mali’s Poetry

By Nora Cornell • October 8, 2020

I believe Taylor Mali’s “Tony Steinberg” poem is an ode to middle school masculinity at its best. A strange topic, to be sure, and perhaps not Mali’s intended one, but “Brave Seventh-Grade Viking Warrior” exudes the earnest and near-excessive energy characteristic of a healthy and encouraging middle school classroom.

Mali himself is the speaker of the poem, and he teaches at an all-boys middle school, which is where the poem’s subject comes from. His work as a history teacher initially seems straightforward, and the creative spin he puts on his assignments is evident from the beginning, when he describes the “popsicle stick and balsa wood” Viking ship a student had turned in (1-2). The first piece of italicized text, “He died with his sword in his hand and so went straight to heaven,” first seems innocuous, if a little foreboding; it’s a fairly poetic factoid and Mali’s previous poem (“The Penis Warriors”) also has a historic tinge, so it feels very much in character (6). However, after Mali continues to bring the readers into the world of his classroom, after we introduce the pyramid project, and after we briefly meet the chaotic Steinberg family, the Viking line repeats itself, this time with a much more ominous feeling.

This is when we learn of Tony Steinberg’s cancer diagnosis, and it’s when the emotions start to get complicated. Mali writes that Tony’s classmates “whispered the name of the disease / as if you could catch it from saying it too loud” (55-56). This line evokes middle school stereotypes of cooties and gossip while still capturing the very real fear and stigma surrounding such a serious diagnosis; it teeters on the same ledge of childhood and maturity that the seventh grade boys do.

The next stanza is when Mali’s own passion starts to come through, and his writing is so expressive that I can almost hear his voice breaking in my mind. “Such a God,” he cries, “of perfect points and planes… would not give cancer to a seventh-grade boy” (71-73). But right as the reader is beginning to rally against the injustice, the tone shifts again and we’re hit with “not one single boy in my class had hair that day; / [they] had all shaved their heads in solidarity” (77-78). What a profound moment for this group to share in the midst of tragedy. These “bald-headed seventh-grade boys,” “pointing” and “laughing” and finding some levity (79-80).

This is what I mean when I say middle school masculinity at its best. These boys are incredibly young to have such a traumatic experience in their lives, but Mr. Mali’s teaching and their sense of community (things that are strongly interconnected, I suspect) as well as their inherent compassion allowed their relationships to flourish and solidarity to thrive, contrary to any sort of toxic expectations we may have of boys at their age.

I’ve been in that awkward group of teenagers at a funeral, and I’ve been that authority in a male-heavy middle school classroom. Mali’s poem miraculously conjures the emotions of each experience perfectly, and after reading it, I feel a bit like the smoke: “rising slowly” after grief.

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