Michael Steffen
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"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)

 

 

 

 

 


van Gogh's "Irises"

 

 

How they seem to tremble,

the breeze they tremble in

enjeweled.

 

Prussian blue, Veronese

green, the scarlet

beneath that no one sees.

 

How one white flower,

apart from the rest,

its mouth opened wide,

 

sings a high note. She sings

a high note, while the others wave

their fat green arms,

 

nod their heads, conspiring,

darkening, how

they lean toward her

 

like assassins, and the ground

flames, the sun in her mouth,

how she faces them, trembling,

 

and sings.

 

               —from No Good at Sea (Legible Press, 2002)