St. Ignatius on the Prison Ship to Rome

Steve Gehrke Click to

Steve Gehrke is the recipient of a grant from the NEA, the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry, the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry and a Pushcart Prize. His books include The Resurrection Machine (BkMk Press, 2000), The Pyramids of Malpighi (Anhinga, 2004) and Michaelangelo’s Seizure (Illinois, 2007).

I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ
— Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans

On those nights when the moon was curled outside his window
like a lion’s tooth, he’d ink and conceal the buried weather
of his doubt, that deceiving angel ripping through him as his body

cantered and swayed against the sides of the boat, the cell contracting
around him like a womb, as if to die was to be born adrift on dark
and shoreless ether, the flesh telling him that flesh is all there is,

until there was no choice except to hate the body, its desires
and seals, rot and moldered lies, an ossuary of bones, the body
already dead, St. Paul said, because of sin, the soul a spit

of light passing through the wreckage of a ship, a glow-
worm quickening the soil of us, these thinking graves, these plots
we press up against each other, my wife convexed along my back

on those nights when our unborn daughter pulsed and swayed
between us like a lamp or a fragile ark in which our chromosomes
were packed, her body glowing because it wasn’t quite a body yet,

so that I’d see behind my eyes that translucent skin I’d seen
in pictures, a mollusk swamped around its pearl at first, then the lava
of creation expanding as it cooled, that rumpled cord linking her

not to her mother’s bloodstream, but to the other side of death,
as if she were being poured into the womb, a self both tributarial
and whole — larva, pupa, chrysalis, imago — that incantation mouthed

as prayer, though it didn’t help when she turned and the cord
eeled around her neck, rupturing the monitor’s loose pentameter,
so that until she turned again and slipped from the noose of elegy,

she was both alive and dead in me. Turn and counter-turn, flesh
and rot of memory. No matter if the pearl, at first, is kissed
into the womb, or if the shoreless angels flesh the glow, like tailors

gathered at our bones, these God-sphinxed chromosomes, fastened
to the animal, inscribed with history, wear our bodies like a uniform,
keep us swinging from incandescence to decay, the Saint

fathoms-deep in prayer and thrashed by the motions of the ship,
his body like an anchor dragged forward by his faith, his vision
of a violent purity billowing the sails, so that when he had to betray

either his body or his God, he wrote his executioners to entice the wild
beasts, let them become his tomb, no matter if he recants himself
or pleads, the flesh ruptured and caesarean, he sought, cleaved until

a soul begins to rise, my wife botanical and numbed upon the table,
moaning for them to stop, her womb a vacancy, the smell of blood
and disinfectant in the room, our daughter incised into the din —

a light broken from the emptiness, and the emptiness sewn in.