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The Pyramids of Malpighi by Steven Gehrke

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Levine Prize in Poetry (2002)

I met a woman not long ago who told me that, as a new mother, she no longer has the concentration for the two-week commitment that a novel requires; instead, now she reads a poem every day. To her, I'll recommend Steven Gehrke. Poems like "First Snow: A Memory" and "Secretary School Graduation Dance, 1968" relate complex histories in compact form and will startle, unnerve, and please readers of every kind. Whoever you are, take courage from these poems, for if they tell us that life's not for sissies, they also remind us that, in the end, we all have a shot at being heroes. -- David Kirby

Steven Gehrke's The Pyramids of Malpighi is full of intelligence, passion, and surprise. Gehrke's breadth and sophistication are fully matched by his skillful technique; the resulting poetry is both Whitmanic and postmodern without falling into the pitfalls either of those adjectives might invoke. He is in touch with the chemical as much as the ineffable, with the political as much as the private and the purely aesthetic, and his style is already idiosyncratic in the best sense--his thumbprint is clear on such lines as "capitalism is the taste of Windex on his tongue" and "let paradise be clean when I arrive, / let it smell of paint-thinner, of formaldehyde." This book promises great things to come, true enough--but it is itself already a great thing, challenging, weighty, and satisfying. -- T.R. Hummer

 

The Invention of Pointillism

Once, in the apartment of a woman I barely knew,
     in a room made of blurred light and ashes
with carpet the color of very old newspaper,
     I began to believe love was a collection of sighs
and small gestures that flew off as we moved.

     I was foolish and romantic. I didn't know
that the sound of her children, splashing in the pool
     outside her bedroom window, that the tips
of her husband's shoes aimed at me
     from the closet, that even the print of Seurat's

The Circus, hung at an angle near the bed
     would never leave me. Afterward, I stood
in her bathroom, watching a face (barely my own),
     waver in my hand's cupped water,
not knowing that each cell remembers desire

     the way each shard of the bottle shattered on the asphalt
outside her apartment remembered thirst,
     the way the bones of the finch that lay next to the bottle,
equally shattered, remembered flight. I believed,
     at climax, that each cell was thinking

one thought, or not thinking at all, but opening
     like a tiny mouth to release its fraction of the soul.
I didn't know this meant I could never leave that
     room. Do you see? Even now, I am that woman,
drawn and re-drawn in the light below the window,

     I am the water crashing over the edge of the pool,
the darkness gathering in the bottom of the shoes,
     in the spaces between the threads of the carpet.
I can even be the children, doing as they are told,
     choreographing, for the sake of the father,

their lies, like flashlights aimed at the night sky
     to re-create the moon. Do you see? I can be anything
in that room. Except, perhaps, for the husband.
     But if, some mornings, he sits with the paper,
pretending to read, but really watching his family orbit

     through the V of light as he turns the pages, as he believes,
stubbornly, in their goodness, what could
     be wrong with that? And if he wakes
some nights, driven from that place where he sleeps
     with only a small road of bed between him and his wife,

if he stands, suddenly, to adjust the picture on the wall,
     if he places one foot then the other onto carpet
the color of news that doesn't matter anymore, and stares
     into the face of each painted dot, which at this hour of night
would be clotted with darkness, and if he thinks

     not of the ballerina's foot slipping from the side of the horse,
the body of the tumbler bent grotesquely and disjointed,
     if instead he thinks, briefly and not for the first time,
the only truth is the truth within a single cell, even I will
     be forced to believe him. Do you see? We have

only two choices. We can believe, stubbornly, that the picture
     on the wall is whole. Or we can imagine
Seurat, as a boy, holding a fresh brush in his hand,
     thinking, "I will show them how easily
they are tricked," then narrowing the tip with his mouth.

 

First Snow: A Memory

During filming, Fred Astaire insisted on so many takes that Ginger Roger’s shoes turned pink with blood. --American Encyclopedia of Film

I'm watching a movie with my grandfather
     who tells me that the snow outside
is the word of God, translated into the intricate
     alphabet of the infinite, "like Chinese
characters," he says, so that I turn to listen
     to each flake extinguishing itself
against the window, and he turns himself
     so completely into his own breathing
that I'm sure, for him, sleep is a hiding place,
     a kind of prayer, the snow encasing
his arm-chair, muffling even the movie.

     Which I remember now only as a vague
black-and-white, but which made an impression
     so strong that some days, when it snows,
I think of Fred Astaire, knocking loose chips
     of plaster from a ceiling so poorly made
it sometimes crumbles on its own. Or I call
     each flake a discarded note from music
that evaporates as it plays, as Fred tries
     to erase each of Ginger's moves,
to thread them beneath the shadows of his own.

Which is how, from above, we must appear,
     trying to thread our particular kind of music
into the landscape, the music of not-having-
     anywhere-else-to-go, the tune an exhausted
traveler whistles, not to keep himself awake,
     but to bind himself to the emptiness,
making a vacancy inside each note
     where he can curl up and fall asleep.

Years ago, as I was watching the glass
     murder each flake of snow,
my grandfather woke to tell me that, in the end,
     Fred Astaire, defeated from a hundred
takes, collapsed at Ginger's bloody feet.
     I was too young to sense, until now,
what he wanted me to learn: we ruin beauty
     so we can pray for its return.

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