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Vanitas for Robert Mapplethorpe

by Steve Gehrke

(1946—1988)


1.

He wanted only to live long enough to see the fame,
             and for years he was God of the rhino whips
and studs, God of the anus, cinched like the top of a purse,
                          of the well-timed press release,
gossip carved by the knife-edge of his tongue,

the whole muscled world lounging in the perfume of his gaze,
             the open mouth of his camera lens inhaling
every pose, until he had captured them: the chiseled,
                          the gorgeous, the famously ornery.
Now the fear grows out of him, the way a boy’s dark hair

falls over his face, so that he’s blinded by it,
             so that even when he sleeps
with a light on in his room, he thinks his own breath
                          might extinguish it, his lungs fire-cleaned
and drained, AZT patrolling in his veins, his spine

a whipping post to which the tortured body clings,
             though, for the press, his body is the mess
at a party’s end, the buffet wrecked by a hundred passing
                          appetites, the magazines reporting AIDS
as if it were a fashion trend, he thinks,

though having the clippings read to him, each morning,
             he understands more deeply that dying is his fame,
doctors and flowers always on the way, the heart monitor’s coverage
                          around the clock, loved ones, fans,
the spotlight of their prayers, all of them breathless

as they wait for his soul to step out from behind the stage,
             as if it might shine above him when he dies,
like his own marquee.


2.

                                       Or, he knows, some hoping
                          it might come out stained, black
as a furnace door, or the slip-card that concealed

the cover of the magazine he stole, sixteen
             and too ashamed to pay, the blind man
behind the counter chasing him for months inside his dreams,
                          calling Thief! Stop that little fag! In hell,
his mother said, there was a clock that chimed each hour,

you will not get out, you will not get out, though yesterday,
             hobbled by a coughing fit, blacking out,
he felt his body folded into a paper boat and released
                          across a stream. What happens
to all the undeveloped film inside the mind,

to the boxed-up wardrobe of our fantasies, he thinks,
             as he lies with a sketchpad flopped across
his lap, bed-sore, uninspired, one eye blind,
                          the other weak, numbly scribbling
the knotted tie of his signature a hundred times,

“his final odd piece of ego and pornography,” they’ll say,
             “a ball of yarn unrolled from the center
of a narcissistic mind,” though he sees it as that thicket
                          of tangled selves we leave behind
when the soul has picked the body’s locks,

his own body now like a photograph
             torn up in rage, so that everything left behind,
he thinks—memory, art—is left in pieces, like shells
                          abandoned when the tide withdraws,
though already another tide,muscular, enormous,

moves inside the muted room with starlight
             curled inside its breaks, so that he feels not scared
but awestruck, dwarfed, like a small boy hurrying
                          to scrawl his name into the sand
before it is erased by the censoring waves.

 

Steve Gehrke’s second book, The Pyramids of Malpighi, won the Philip Levine Prize and was published by Anhinga Press. New poems are forthcoming at The Yale Review, Slate, The Threepenny Review, Southern Review, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. He’s a PhD student at the University of Missouri and poetry editor of The Missouri Review. (4/2005)


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