Structuralism: Self Portrait with a Biography of Eugene O’Neill

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).

“Then a horrible thought came to me. I was dead, of course, and death was nothing but a continuation of life as it had been when one left it. . . . This is what purgatory was–or was it hell itself? My body was dead, but I was there too. I went into a stupor, hardly conscious. . . . At last — how long I don’t know — the knocking came again.”

                                                                        –Eugene O’Neill on his suicide attempt

Those days, he felt like a walking text, God-less, feigned,
        a book not even the author understands, the self
he thought he was only a linguistic hologram in a self-revising brain.
        Most mornings, he spent writing drafts and throwing
them away, trying to find a crescendo through his layers of disguise,

through the ticks and demarcations, the language like a dancer
        dancing the dance of seven veils around his head,
a beautiful distraction, a swirl of feathers independent
        of a bird, no center, no storm-eye where
that therapeutic emptiness might dwell, everything feeling artificial,

everything contrived, the forged prescriptions crumpled in his hand,
        the sidewalks laid out like a crossword puzzle
at his feet, as he walked the city with one ear tuned to the fatal shore,
        like Odysseus bound to the masthead, fearful
yet restrained, his disgust towards his parents, towards the world,

slowly twisting inward, like the edge of something burned.
        He gave a performance for each pharmacist,
wincing, holding a hand against his side to fake a bit of pain,
        the kind of thing his mother must have done when she had
to have her morphine, each pharmacist sighing, turning obligingly away,

like the turn that signals a soliloquy, the self stripped bare before
        an audience, like my body as they peeled my clothes away,
the parchment-yellow skin, the disease scribbled everywhere,
        the doctors reading, easily, the message in my swollen feet,
in the sweat laced with my body’s waste, the compost heap

of my dirty clothes piled at their feet, the cut-off shorts, the underwear,
        each heartbeat being sucked into a stethoscope,
an IV placed, the nurse with a fist around the plasma bag,
        trying to squeeze the platelets in, that boy leaving me
while the blood of yet another stranger was pumped into my veins,

as if I were an actor switching roles, O’Neill drugged, passing out,
        vacant as a house behind a set design, the music
moving through him, electricity and feathers, that vertigo, that swift
        inward falling, his body like a word overgrown
with implications, the small flame of its meaning trampled out,

a wince, a muscle-flutter, shock. All morning, I’ve been trying
        to make a song from the body’s gaps, its scars
and biopsies, its errors, its transparencies, the breath
        like something written and constantly erased,
the flaw in me at birth no radar could detect, the slow erosion

of my kidney, the plankton of my leukocytes devouring the shore.
        All morning, I’ve felt like a man running his fingers
through the ash, sifting through his biographies, his plays,
        the words, like blood cells filled with oxygen, briefly
inflating as I read — his restless, untouchable silence,

that strange tethering of funeral and song behind his eyes —
        though the answers never really come, because
the language like the body has no stasis point, can’t be solved,
        only organized, swept up into the jet stream
of our thoughts, my own words jointed together in my sloppy

grade-school penmanship, balanced against each other, like a pile
        of twigs, or simplified into opposites — past/future, him/
me — like those bars of light and shade hauled in through the window
        blinds and laid across my chest this morning
like a music staff, my body a box of piano strings, waiting to be struck,

the music fading now, the chair, O’Neill confused, thinking there’s
        someone singing in the room, his body like a fog crawling
through the windowsills, through the empty bottles on the floor,
        so that as I remember, as I write, as I inhale him and speak
him back into the air, he stirs, he hears me knocking at the door.