NEA Literature Fellowships

Steven Gehrke

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(2007 - Poetry)

"Michelangelo's Seizure"

When it happened, finally,
on the preparation bridge,
where he had stood all morning
grinding the pigments, grooming
his brush-tips to a fine point
so that he could thread Eve's hair
like a serpent down her back,
his head rocked forward on the bell-chain
of his spine, the catwalks
rattling as he fell, a paint-
bowl splattering the ceiling,
then spinning like a dying bird,
to the cathedral floor, frightening
the assistant who--trained
in such matters--huffed up
the footbridge to wedge
the handle of a wooden brush
between the mouse-trap of the teeth,
to keep the master from biting off
his tongue. Did the choir-box
fill with angels? Did the master
feel the beast rising up in him
to devour the pearl of heaven
at the center of his brain? If you
were that assistant, kneeling
next to the stampeded body,
smelling the quicklime in the air,
the boiled milk of plaster, seeing him
tangled in the body's vines, voiceless,
strained, would you call it rapture?
The assistant didn't either, didn't even
consider it, or think to pray,
but sat watching as the spirit clattered
back inside of him, like a chandelier
lowered from a ceiling--
and when it was over, he thought
he heard the artist curse softly
as he surfaced, a small word, violent,
so that when the master walked outside
to get some air, the boy sat atop
the scaffolding, eating his orange
and letting the fruit peels fall,
like drips of flame, feeling freer
in a way, almost glad. Outside,
it was fall, the city proud
with chimneys. Ragged, clouds
of plaster in his beard, his mouth
hollow, aching like an empty purse,
Michelangelo could still hear
the tortured voices on the ceiling
calling out for completion,
amputated, each face shadowed
with his own, which he would paint,
one morning, with the witchcraft
hushed inside his veins,
onto the flayed skin of St.
Bartholomew, crumpled, fierce,
with two dead bugs crushed
into the paint, like that bit of terror,
he would think, sealed inside
of everything He makes. Is this
what I have inside of me? Now
he lifted his fingers to his lips,
to the wasp's nest of his mouth,
and withdrew, with the ease of spitting
out an apple stem, a tiny splinter
of wood that had sunk into his tongue.

Steve Gehrke's third book of poetry, Michelangelo's Seizure, was selected for the National Poetry Series and published in 2007. His second book, The Pyramids of Malpighi, won the Philip Levine Prize. He teaches at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

Author's Statement

I am currently working on a book of poetry about the life of the great American playwright, Eugene O'Neill, and the money from the grant will give me time to work on that book in the next few months. Right now, I'm researching O'Neill's biography, and his work, to try to find moments of psychological empathy that will let me into the poems. Along with the time to work on the book, the NEA has helped to bring some exposure for my work. About a month after I received the grant, a reporter from the NY Times called and said he'd like to do a short article about the grant, and about my poetry. I'm extremely grateful for the money and the attention.