Poem of the Week | June 26, 2012

This week we’re featuring a poem by the second runner-up from our Spring contest issue. Steve Gehrke has published three books, most recently Michelangelo’s Seizure, which was selected for the National Poetry Series and published by University of Illinois Press in 2007. His other books are The Pyramids of Malpighi (Anhinga, 2004), selected for the Philip Levine Prize, and The Resurrection Machine (BkMk, 2000), winner of the John Ciardi Prize. Other prizes include an NEA Grant and a Pushcart Prize. Poems from his new manuscript, Prologue, Epilogue, have appeared or are forthcoming at AGNI, Poetry, Shenandoah, VQR  and many others. He teaches at the University of Nevada-Reno.

Author’s Statement:

Funny, how certain things lie untouched in us for years, how we learn to evade them, like stones tossed in the hopscotch box of memory. In some ways, I think these evasions, these buried parts of ourselves we’ve learned to walk around, wedge us into a certain way of being, or at least limit our understanding of who we are. For instance, when I was fourteen, I started hearing scraps of music in the air. Little meaningless fragments: commercial jingles, the refrains of popular songs repeated endlessly. Driving with my mother, once, I heard “We Are the World” playing faintly on the radio, but when I reached to turn the dial up, the radio clicked on beneath my fingertips. I guess I could have told my mother what was happening, and maybe she would have driven me to the hospital right then, found me some specialist or psychologist, or maybe just told me that it was no big deal, that it would go away eventually. But I didn’t say anything. Instead, I locked away that bit of information about myself in the same place where I’ve locked away so many other fragments of myself, both big and small. I don’t mean to pathologize myself, or to suggest that I’m any more or less disturbed than anybody else. Of course, we all have these pieces of ourselves that we haven’t completely integrated into who we think we are. What I mean to suggest is that perhaps one thing poetry can do is turn the most secret self into a kind of muse, or at least open a space where strangenesses and darknesses can be admitted to, examined, and maybe even reintegrated into a more wholly coagulated self. I suppose this smacks of confessionalism and all its connotations (is there a poet who is more out-of-fashion than Robert Lowell?), but I guess I do think that poetry can  help us understand (or at least accept) the oddities of our own minds. And maybe one of the reason so many poets write about mental illness is that both poetry and psychosis have a way of rubbing away the boundary between the actual and the invented worlds. In a way, hallucination and delusion literalizes what only seems metaphorical or surreal in the poem. Lowell, Plath, Sexton, and Berryman were far from the first poets to suffer from mental illness, but what makes their poems so powerful for me is that they cast their lens at the peculiarity of their own minds, and in this way the subject of their poems was united with its source.



Strange to think of the world as something
flung from the head and re-absorbed,
our neurons bobbling at the core of every


image we perceive, the mind, as Coleridge said,
like a living plant that half-creates the oxygen
it breaths, but how else to explain that day,


twenty-five years ago, when I’d heard music,
like a thrown voice, a single phrase
that kept looping back through me, repeating


for an hour or more, like a monk at prayer?
Even then, at fourteen, sealed into a hospital
room, I knew it was myself I was listening to,


though I can’t remember now if I was scared,
if I’d burrowed deeper into the bed, or scrunched
the pillow around me like a turban. I knew


that I’d been given a burden, that I’d have to dig
a hole and bury that song inside of it and tamp
my foot across the dirt, like a man working


to disguise a grave. I heard it again the next day
as my mother drove me home, and another—
what?—twenty times, and never said a word.


Then it vanished, or was re-absorbed,
like some lost bird reunited with the flock.
But now, as I walk the house, checking locks,


cranking the shutters closed, sleepless
for the third straight night, shadows like a plastic
surgeon’s marks across my face, that music


thinks its way back to me across the years,
the shape of all that’s happened swoons through me
as a feeling, a wonder laced with confusion—


you’ve got to remember me—and that door
of whispers re-opens in the air, so that I see
that boy laid out on the hospital bed, which


is draped like an altar, though I know that its
mattress has been burned, its bed-rails melted down,
that the nurses who swayed their bodies through


the halls, like censers teeming, are memories
even to themselves by now, as they turn
over in their beds, as they swab the iodine


across his skin again, and mark the incision
points with pens, and the boy waits for the biopsy
to begin. When the needle presses into his hip,


he digs a mote around his mind to keep the pain
at bay, so that the whole procedure—the doctor
grunting a little as he works to chisel a flake of bone


away, then lifting it from him like an impacted tooth—
seems to be happening on a television screen, or in
a novel, though even now that useless drama


is lodged in him like footprints in prehistoric lava.
There seemed to be no choice those days: he
had to keep giving pieces of himself away. But there’s


a gap that will not heal when the ego breaks, like
the crack in sheetrock that makes the whole house sag,
a lane between what’s expunged and what remains,


so that trying to hold the self together becomes like
trying to heal the two halves of a broken stone, pressing
the two sides together until your muscles ache, until


the mind exhausts itself, and the only thing to do is to
watch the fissure grow, the gap in him repeated
everywhere, like the flaw inside a camera imprinted


on the pictures that it takes. In the only Polaroid from
those days, the boy’s half-erased, overexposed, so thin
it looks like he’s painted on the sheets, like he’s giving


his own face away, breathing it into the oxygen mask,
his eyes slurring towards some invisible presence
in the corner of the room, towards me holding


that picture of the boy I used to be, as I listen
to the lost self singing, at the window, it’s hopeless
serenade, that boy I sometimes let inside, sometimes


turn away, the self some nights like two animals
taking shelter in a skull, other nights singing
from the center of its own decay, the world


beyond us reduced to the scantest firings in
the brain, like seafloors mapped by sonic waves
until—outside or in—something says our name.