Edgar Kunz’s debut collection of poems, Tap Out, is as much an act of storytelling as “a catalogue” of the formative emblems of manhood—boys shaping their own idea of it, men trying to assert, and instill it, and the poet’s attempt to develop a coherent picture from all of it.
Tap Out is filled with attention to the physicality of its characters who carry out their teachings in impulsive, quasi-ferocious states. Kunz’s straightforward verse is captivating in assembling contexts for these hard men—graduation, the silent space of a truck’s cab, boys milling around a used condom left in a gutter, a supply closet, working alone after all other employees have gone home. These are intimate scenes with men that struggle with intimacy, charging quiet moments with intensity, and intensifying quiet moments. The poem “Close” captures this activation as a father vigorously attempts to show his son how to park:
The quality of the storytelling here is in interlacing narrative with speech: we register emotional depth from this visceral moment, “exhaust / and brake light pooling around our knees.” As in “My Father at 49, Working / The Night Shift at B&R Diesel,” which begins, “There’s no one left to see his hands . . .” these moments unfold around the reader and the poet with the same starkness as they do for the poet and his father. What flourishes in these near-empty scenes are the crevices, hands “gnarled / as roots dripping river mud,” a “Split nail grown back // scalloped and crooked,” “The stitch- / puckered skin,” the life a body shows.
For a young boy drawing up a how-to list of masculinity until he’s able to embody those traits, the language used to depict male figures in Tap Out is only slightly less evocative than the depiction of their physicality. In almost every scene hands function as the most vivid image—representative of one’s ability to labor, and proof of one’s physical competence, and, with it, worth. The poem “Deciding” lists the qualities of youth in a descriptive tapestry to this end: “us, brothers / our sometimes father, / our breath knit and drifting, / our useless hands . . .”
Tap Out can be read as a reckoning with the past at the pace of the poet’s unfolding of the frayed material out of which has been fashioned an image of masculinity. In the titular poem, it’s the young poet whose existence is challenged as he’s forced to refuse defeat by “tap out” during a wrestling match. It’s a moment of extreme selfhood borne of a physical breaking point that enables him to forge his own footing: the poet envisions himself seeing himself “small and trembling,” speaking to himself, and in so doing, resisting the imposed, accumulated definitions of the masculine forces in his world: “Not you. Not you.”
ALSO ON BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Kunz for Tap Out.