"First Things First"
No wonder our parents were so intent
on teaching us what to do when
the phone’s ringing, someone’s at the door,
our hand is on a hot stove,
and we need to go to the bathroom—
to be absolutely certain, as adults,
in that baffling shuffle of choices,
where to begin, and why.
You’d think it would be obvious
in the echelon of things to do,
but someone at some point
dragged a cart from a barn
and placed his horse behind it—
the earliest failure of common sense—
man and beast standing in rain,
puzzling over their lack of movement.
from Bad Behavior (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2012)
Grünewald's Body of Christ
The leaden face emptied.
And here, a wood-slivered arm,
the torso's bilious patina, toenails bleeding
like wineskins, the foot's gaunt curvature.
Mattias Grünewald paints
a syphilitic messiah, scabbed putrefact,
"mortal anthropos," like radical sex,
Christ dead from love—an altarpiece
for patients at the Isenheim hospice—
thousands thinned by a spirochete,
chancred, in white linen, lifted by monks
to face a polyptych—body, soul
and faith, the "suffering servant."
The gothic of St. Anthony's panel:
a gnome crouches, lumpish,
festered, his right foot webbed,
the only figure recognizably human,
his left hand clutching Anthony's breviary.
Syphilis came to Europe from Haiti,
the old story goes, spread
by Columbus' sailors (the Cardinal
of Gurk, a bishop coadjutor
longtime sufferers). Rumor had it
Henry VIII contracted the pox
from Cardinal Wolsey constantly
at his ear. Though sexual ailments
were commonly blamed on the French,
syphilis was known as the Spanish evil.
But in Grünewald's painting,
syphilis becomes a part of God—
ravaged, swollen and sordid—a Christ
who contains all—pneumocystis,
Kaposi's sarcoma, T-cells diminishing,
each anonymous daughter and son—
a careful arrangement of muscle, of bone
fetus-curled in a mother's arms,
his gravecloth's fluttering drape,
a last brushtroke before the light fails.
from Heart Murmur (Bordighera Press, 2009)