blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Review | The World in Repair: Steve Gehrke's The Pyramids of Malpighi
                  (Anhinga Press, 2004)

In Wallace Stevens' "Peter Quince at the Clavier" we find a startling claim about the familiar and often false dichotomy of body versus mind: "Beauty is momentary in the mind— / The fitful tracing of a portal; / But in the flesh it is immortal." In The Pyramids of Malpighi, his second book of poetry, Steve Gehrke also seeks to comprehend beauty in the mystery of the human body, yet Gehrke's search for comfort and understanding leads in rather a different direction than Stevens' abstractions, taking us through an unvarnished look at the body's flaws and failings that is another aspect of its power to inspire awe. Through the eyes of both patients and artists, Steve Gehrke examines "the world in repair." The savage and strange exploration of fragility embodied in this collection of poems nevertheless has the capacity to lend unexpected comforts to a reader faced with an inescapable mortality.

Exploring the minute geometry of our chemical makeup, as well as the universe at large that once "could fit / inside your living room," Gehrke shows how abstractions alter memory, much as a transplanted organ displaces the body, or as Jackson Pollack's flung paint transforms the universe of the canvas. Gehrke continues developing the themes introduced in his first collection, The Resurrection Machine, such as the impact of disease on the body and the struggle of language to express the ineffable, though he does so here with greater tonal flexibility, increased formal inventiveness, and a more sophisticated synthesis of illness and art.

Evocative of mysterious ruins, the book's title alludes to renal pyramids within walls of the human kidney. Gehrke's intricate pyramids recall the spiritual grandeur of the Pyramids at Giza as well as the mysteries hidden within the body's architecture. In the title poem, there is poignant fragility and beauty in the narrator's abject response following a failed kidney transplant as he asserts human inevitability: "Mother, some day our bodies / will be discovered / and they will call them ruins."

Gehrke juxtaposes the trauma of a futile operation with the deconstruction of a human body invoked in a story of three people lost in the wilderness who must revert to cannibalism. Desperate survivors crouch around the flayed corpse "as if around a fire, as if what's inside / could warm their hands." The narrator's own organs are "soft as bread, petal-like, bouqueted / around the flaw." As the doctors place his mother's kidney in his body, she "drop[s] straight through."

On the brink of turning away from extreme suffering, Gehrke instead risks a discovery of beauty, even in death. As a woman faces the corpse from which she has eaten, she sees

. . . a necklace of icicles
             that hangs into the opening, like a mobile
that hangs into a crib, so that she imagines angels
             with wings the size of eyebrows

The woman realizes the reality of the tragedy:

             No, that's not how it happened . . .
The fire wouldn't catch,
             and you ate the dead man cold.

The motif of a body giving out recurs in The Pyramids of Malpighi, as the author draws from his personal experience with faulty kidneys. Gehrke declares, "Matter is all we have, and all we have / to lose // is inside the dialysis machine." He explores the frailty of the body, the "broken symmetry" of disease that is altered and displaced by doctors:

. . . the illusion

of the fixed interior revealed like a cloth
swiped from the top of a birdcage,

a hand reaching through the little metal door
altering the motion inside

Beside the suffering narrator lies the sixteen-year-old, Abbie, who is "humming the Beatles." Dark, yet oddly comforting humor emerges as the narrator translates lyrics from "Yellow Submarine" into "we all live // in a dialysis machine."

Gehrke synthesizes images of cells with elements of music, art, and speech translated through memory in "Inside the Dialysis Machine," combining postmodern reinvention with sprawling, hypnotic Whitmanian anaphora. Allusions range from the "masculine sea" and "feminine air" of Moby Dick to time, "something terribly nimble catching/ all the fingerlings," echoing Jorie Graham's "San Sepolcro." These evocations of the composite physical and metaphysical self swirl along with the Action Painting of Pollack—"false / pattern everywhere"—and portraits of malfunctioning cells. These cells are not cells you might view with a microscope, but

. . . cells that rotated backwards,
cells with a hole burned through,

cells that kept a scream in them,
that kept time in them . . .

cells that buttoned down
a face . . .

As the poem spirals out "in all directions, like a listening," Gehrke reminds the reader that "only absence is permanent."

Much like the "something, somewhere" that is "taking it all down" in "Inside the Dialysis Machine," memory as translator of a past that continuously informs consciousness surfaces in "First Snow: A Memory." The weathered landscape as a backdrop to the dance moves of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers suggests that patterns such as snow and choreography are what we use to "bind [ourselves] to the emptiness." Gehrke's painterly layering of images—Ginger's bloody shoes, the white snow that is "the / intricate alphabet of the infinite"—is both monstrous and beautiful.

Gehrke's aesthetics are unwavering in regard to compassion and the beauty inherent in pain. This collection of poems combines cells with Pointillism, dialysis with Abstract Expressionism, the finality of death with organs that falsely suggest a sense of metaphysical completeness. The author's tonal control exudes empathy and subtle humor, despite his often gruesome subject matter. Gehrke examines our partialities, piecemeal reinventions, the self continuously in flux, in which suffering seems, ultimately, to be a necessary darkness, one that calls beauty back from its mysterious recesses within the body and the spirit. In The Pyramids of Malpighi, Gehrke seeks solace in a radical way—through an unflinching look at the physical body's limitations, celebrating its numerous capacities for pain and encompassing its ruin within a fierce embrace.  

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