Martin Willitts, Jr. | What is a man?

A man used to be measured by his calluses. All work

and no play made him dull before his time. His hands

were gnarled more than tree root, more arthritis than hands.

Bitter and broken a few times, a few removed by machines

they never could understand. What was lost was regained

by learning what they needed when bad things happened.

The more calluses the more a man. This is what they knew.

Hardness and stress, heart failure, eased by alcohol

and by beating the chest of the moon. No job was too small.

No amount of working past darkness was too much.

He could carry a union card and feel it meant his job would last.

He could look at the white fenced neighborhoods, and knew,

he made something of himself at last. Calluses was were a code,

bringing home the bacon was the result.

This he understood. Nothing else.


Blame comes with many shades of idiocy. He wakes up

and the landscape has changed beneath his feet. He never

saw it coming, never listened to the news until too late,

suddenly he is behind the eight ball, nothing is familiar.

Something unexpected.

His wife says he is not earning enough.

When did this happen? He could not see it coming

until it had passed by him, standing mouth-open like a carp.


Then the kids act up. They become strangers. Everything tilts.

What’s next? He looks in the mirror and his face is blank.

The factory closes, shipping jobs to where there are no unions.

He looks at the fleshy part of his hands, and they are smooth.

He kicks the moon and the moon kicks back. He drinks shot glasses

of pain, finds he does not know who he is anymore

and did he ever really know in the first place?


He passes blame around, smacks the wife, gets arrested,

finds his hands holding the jail bars. Finds penance is

being shipped overseas. He doesn’t know when things went bad.

His hands shrivel to raisins. He runs out of options.

No one will take him back and he does not know where to go.

He goes into a bar. They kick him out. The church shuts the doors.

He counts his life as one big callus. The kind like a water blister.

He loses his way to the house he lost long time ago.

There is no one waiting for him there. Is anything recognizable?


A man used to be measured by his calluses. All work,

no play, dull before his time, hands gnarled

more than tree root; what does he have to show for it?

Dreams, all dreams, gone like the jobs, shipped overseas.

When he asks, what is a man, no one answers.



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One Response to Martin Willitts, Jr. | What is a man?

  1. Pumar October 3, 2014 at 12:51 am #

    This poem is the cold, hard truth; well not for all men who are earning great money and have decent, stable jobs. However, I hope those guys, or men, or the unknown man described in this poem will find a way to rise in these hardships. Life is tough; but man must not be discouraged by whatever circumstances that may come in his way.

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