This week I’m featuring a poem from W. Todd Kaneko’s powerful book The Dead Wrestler Elegies. Kaneko’s project – which takes the lives and deaths of famous wrestlers and weaves them across narratives of marriage, father/son relationships, and masculinity – conducts the kind of emotional and intellectual algebra that opens up worlds to its readers. The facts of a personal life lived are set against the facts of the mythic lives of wrestlers, each side richer for the connections made.
This week’s poem, “Be More Like Sputnik Monroe,” is a good example of what the book is able to do at its best. Springing off the braggadocio of the epigraph, the speaker goes into a personal narrative that deftly juxtaposes memory and description. As the poem progresses, Monroe is further and further established as a larger-than-life character, “a bad Elvis” who “mixed it up everywhere.” This narrative contrasts that of the speaker and their father who “shook [their] fists as [Monroe] broke rules / against guys who were easier to cheer.” These lines present an interesting dynamic: while Monroe’s star quality is based on bullying and swagger, the father and son, rather than feel emboldened by what Monroe represents, feel themselves at odds.
This moment is also where the poem begins its turn towards acknowledging the complicated nature of what wrestlers like Monroe imply about masculinity. What keeps the father and son on the side of “guys who were easier to cheer,” also keeps the father from fighting in the scene later in the poem. While this decision of conscience stays true to the fist-shaking disapproval of Monroe’s narrative earlier in the poem, the cost of this decision leaves the father at a distance from both the mother and the epigraph’s tone. Raising a fist, either in protest or to fight, remains a moral act for the father, a fact that grounds the speaker’s meditation at the end while leaving him to find his own answers. One returns to the phrasing of the title and wrestles with it as the speaker might: as a statement at turns troubling and searching.
Be More Like Sputnik Monroe – W. Todd Kaneko
It’s hard to be humble when you’re 235 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal with a body women love and men fear. — Sputnik Monroe
When my father died, he left me a trove
of video tapes, a warped memorial
for those men he watched with my mother
before she left for parts unknown,
for those fights he relived once he was laid
off from the plane yards. We watched
men like Sputnik Monroe bleed the hard way,
shook our fists as he broke rules
against guys who were easier to cheer.
He was a bad Elvis, greased-back
hair with a shock of white, Sputnik Monroe
mixed it up everywhere, a rodeo
fistfight, a henhouse tornado. My mother
picked a fight in an Idaho truck stop
once, stabbed a man’s chest with her middle
finger, then stepped to one side
so my father could fight him in the parking lot.
Afterwards, my mother was silent
all the way back to Seattle, her disgust
with him — the way he wrapped his arm
around her shoulder, guided her to the car,
and sped back to the freeway — hanging
between them from that point forward.
Sputnik Monroe clobbered men
wherever he went, sneered at those fists
raised against him in Memphis.
Some nights, as my wife sleeps upstairs,
I watch my father’s video tapes and
imagine what I would have done that day
if I knew that my marriage depended
on what I did with my hands.
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