Summary: This very welcome poem concerns "twelve older men in shirt sleeves," a group of men with prostate cancer. The narrator, one of the men in this "private brotherhood" suggests the difficulty and reluctance of many men to recognize out-loud their mutual circumstances: "Ever notice how no one parks / in the Cancer Center zone." This line sets the tone; the men are vulnerable and afraid. From time to time they gather for support from one another and from the meeting's scheduled speaker. The reader has little difficulty imagining the collective angst and the grasping of hope shared by the participants leaning together in their mutual storm.

Any expectation of supportive discourse is shattered by this evening's guest speaker, a careless surgeon, who strides confidently into the room with his tray of slides. The remainder of the poem demonstrates a worst-case scenario:

I interrupt his gay delivery,
"What about orgasm...?"
"Forget orgasm," he grins,
"You don't have a prostate."

Some smile nervously and bravely ask questions that really matter. Each time the physician exhibits his caustic brand of insensitivity. The narrator, surely expressing the feelings of his colleagues, wants only to "drive / this witch doctor from the room."


Commentary: Recently in a class concerning "body intimacies," I assigned poems by Lucille Clifton, paintings by Frida Kahlo and Alice Neel, and this poem by Larry Smith. The women in the large class of students were generally receptive to the visual and poetic narratives but many of the men became very uneasy, even agitated, with many of the selections, especially with Smith's poem. I had asked two males some days prior to class to present a reading and discussion. They had agreed readily, but in front of the class they were clearly uncomfortable. In a writing assignment many said they strongly disliked the television ads dealing with prostate problems, ED, and other personal male health issues. After class many of the women, who had found the Neel, Kahlo, and Clifton materials provocative, useful, and sometimes amusing, expressed impatience with male comments and body language. Several men found "poem to my last period" and "poem to my uterus" not just silly, but ridiculous.

Primary Source

A River Remains


WordTech Editions

Place Published

Cincinnati, Ohio