Poem of the Week | September 20, 2011

This week we are proud to feature a poem from our latest issue, 34.2: Steve Gehrke’s “Prologue, Epilogue.” Gehrke has published three book, 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, Shenandoah, VQR, Literary Imagination and many others. He teaches at the University of Nevada-Reno.

Author’s Note:

“As soon as man comes to life,” Heidegger says, “he is at once old enough to die.” This realization is central to the poems in my new manuscript, Prologue, Epilogue, and in particular to the poem “The Evaporating Braid.” If we are—as the speaker in these poems is—without the comforts of religious belief, then how do we impart an understanding of mortality to our children? And how do we keep them from being crippled by the anxiety this knowledge can create? There are, of course, other themes in these poems—inheritance, parenthood, divorce—and it’s my hope that the themes are woven together in a way that that creates an overall sense of the speaker’s experience rather than a set of ideas.

Prologue, Epilogue

for my daughter


When you were vaulted, embargoed, tapping out

messages on the walls, when you were translucent,

opalescent, a hieroglyph coming to life in its cave,

when your body was a glowing aquarium of cells,

when you were reptilian, mammalian, quick-changing

behind the curtain’s folds, when you were a kite

unfolding the wind, an expanding mesh, an origamist

of the flesh, when you were a repetition, an exhalation,

a star’s migration, when you hopscotched the chalked side-

walks of our chromosomes, when you were docked

and moored, when you were the building storm, a collection

of notes being scored, the sampler, the copyist, the knot

of streams, the welcome plagiarist of genes,

when you were something written a thousand times,

a thousand times erased, when you were a text slowly

being traced, when the eternal grammars sifted into you

like the sediment of stars, when you were a syntax,

a structure, the perfect rhyme, the one that worked,

the eureka in our laboratory of sighs, when you

were unjointed, unmade, unbecome, bodiless,

vagabond, a clapper in need of a bell, when you

were a fixation, a flirtation, our compendium,

our chapter and verse, when we groped for you

like a light switch, when you were a target, a zeroing-

in, the one lucky toss in our carnival games, a glint,

a guess, the alchemist’s dream, when you were whistling

on the stoop of our thoughts, the ventriloquist,

the eaves-dropper, the message in the ear, the sky-

written note the wind had just erased, when you

were a divided city, axed but magnetized, you longing

for you, the pheromones in the air, when we carried you

like synchronized keys, our balkanized deity,

when you were anybody’s guess, the card dealt

from the middle of the deck, the fortune-teller’s lies,

when you were fractured, rationed, metabolized backwards

through the generations, when you were a splinter

in a million different boards, a single grain in a silo of cells,

when you were the whole flock, the herd, the fire-

flies rising in the fields, when you were the fields

themselves, when you spread out across the plains,

a hundred thousand streams with the currents

reversed, when you were a universe of bees

promised to a hive, when an entire civilization

began its pilgrimage to you, when you were atoms,

electrons, the ancient seeds, morphic, mineral,

cascading down evolution’s alleyways, embroidered

in the mysteries, weren’t we already just out ahead

of you, two ghosts being erased by the fog, weren’t we

already being burned away, weren’t we a contraction,

a resolving contradiction, the final stops on your migration,

weren’t we already knotted in a braid, isn’t this a back-

wards elegy, my forward etymology, isn’t it the billions

of years before your birth that we should mourn,

aren’t you the root, the source, the pyramid’s tip,

won’t you be our mother when the causal chain flips?