Steven Gehrke won the 2004 Marlboro Prize in Poetry for his poem, "Self-Portrait as Head of Goliath" selected by Chase Twichell

Self-Portrait as Head of Goliath

When, in Naples, estranged
from his paternal Rome,
Caravaggio dreamed the boy
he killed back onto the tip
of his blade, his sword bending
again under the boy's sudden weight,
he worked all night, with oils
and dread, and self-love, which is the eye
at the center of our grief, altering
the lines of the lips, darkening each hair
on the beard, and swirling his gaze
into the giant's eyes, until his own face
bloomed like an exiled flower
from the stalk of Goliath's neck,
loose veins dangling like roots, and when
he had finished, two brushes drying
on a windowsill, the city
blushing with an early dawn
below, he could hear
the seller's carts being wheeled
into the marketplace, he could sense
himself, each painted atom,
in a mound of fruit spilled into the street,
the arc of his life, for the first time
in months, cast out beyond his fear,
so that he knew there might be
some small portion
of pleasure, even in the dying,
some sweetness. Then,
because the murderer inherits
the sins of the murdered one,
or because of exile and arrogance,
all those miles to Rome, like the stations
of the cross, because of anxiety,
or the fruit sellers, outside, calling forth,
greedily, their own portions
of the day, the most famous
painter on earth felt his death
warrant flutter like a flag above the Rome
inside of him, and when he turned
back to the painting, when he stared
into the spotlight of his face,
his head swinging in David's hand,
like a lantern, as if it might guide
them, fearless, through the valley
of their myth, he felt the self evaporate,
the way a reflection is absorbed
into a stained-glass window,
so that he could pray not for pardon
or forgiveness, but for the boy he killed
to be called forth into the frame,
into David's face, made tender
by the slaying, resurrection light
all along his skin, so that he
could ask with humility,
and for more than himself: of sins,
are all our paintings made?

Steven Gehrke's second book, The Pyramids of Malpighi, was selected by Philip Levine for the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry and published by Ashinga Press in 2004. He has also won the Gulf Coast Poetry Pirze, and other prizes. Recent poems have appeared at The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Slate, The Georgia Review, and Poetry Daily. He is poetry editor at the Missouri Review.

Copyright 2004© Steven Gehrke

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