I’ve loved this poem by Amy Gerstler for a long time.
A Father at His Son’s Baptism
Cutlet carved from our larger carcasses:
thus were you made — from a spit and a hug.
The scratchy stuff you’re lying on is wool.
You recognize the pressure of your mother’s hand.
That white moon with a bluish cast is a priest’s face,
frowning over a water bowl. Whatever befalls you now,
you’ve been blessed, in a most picturesque
and ineffective ceremony dating from the Middle Ages.
Outdoors, the church lawn radiates a lethal green.
A gas truck thunders down the street.
Why, at emotional moments, do the placid trees
and landscape look overexposed, almost ready
to bleach away, and reveal the workings
of “the Real” machine underneath?
All bundled up on such a hot day:
whose whelp, pray tell, or mutton chop are you?
— tail-less, your cloudy gaze a vague accusation,
not of the sins of my history, but ignorance
to come, future cruelty. You’re getting red
in the face, blotchy, ready to wail. Good.
From now on protest and remember everything.
Your cries assail even the indigent dead,
buried in charity plots right outside,
slowly releasing their heat, while you,
born out of the blue into a wheezing spring,
watch a chaotic mosaic assemble itself.
You tune up. My love for you is half-adrenaline,
half gibberish. More Latin and the priest
splatters you. He’s got one good eye,
and a black patch, like a pirate.
Now, smiling as if he knows something I don’t,
he hands you to me. If I drop you, loudmouth,
will you bounce or fly? You were chalky
and bloody at first, in the doctor’s grip,
looking skinned and inside-out.
Boyhood, a dangling carrot. I stare at you
and experience the embarrassment of riches.
I need to loosen my tie or I’ll faint.
Outside a rake scrapes, sprinklers hiss.
It might be best to set you down
in one of these squares of light on the floor,
striped by venetian blinds, and leave you safe
in that bright cage. I could go have coffee,
and come back when we can carry on
a conversation. Men and women are afraid
of each other. It’s true. Whisper
and drool of my flesh, I’m terrified of you.
— Amy Gerstler, from Bitter Angel, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1990
The poet Eileen Myles said of Gerstler’s work, “the supernatural, the sexy mundane, the out-of-sight are simply her materials.” Yes. Take the utterly original descriptions of this new baby: “Cutlet carved from our larger carcasses”(!) Or, “You were chalky / and blood at first, in the doctor’s grip, / looking skinned and inside-out.” We are ferried along in this poem with sharp, pulsing sounds hidden in plain sight — “That white moon with a bluish cast is a priest’s face, / frowning over a water bowl.”
The voice of the speaker is observant, honest, afraid, and even, at turns, wise: “From now on protest and remember everything.” There are so many subtle moments of acceleration and buildup in the poem that get us to those implicating final lines: “Men and women are afraid / of each other. It’s true. Whisper / and drool of my flesh, I’m terrified of you.” This poem brilliantly conveys that feeling of lost-at-sea-ness that is anyone closely observing a new baby — Who is this baby? Where did s/he come from?