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by Amy Gerstler

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Amy Gerstler has won acclaim for complex yet accessible poetry that is by turns extravagant, subversive, surreal, and playful. In her new collection, Medicine, she deploys a variety of dramatic voices, spoken by such disparate characters as Cinderella's wicked sisters, the wife of a nineteenth-century naturalist, a homicide detective, and a woman who is


Amy Gerstler has won acclaim for complex yet accessible poetry that is by turns extravagant, subversive, surreal, and playful. In her new collection, Medicine, she deploys a variety of dramatic voices, spoken by such disparate characters as Cinderella's wicked sisters, the wife of a nineteenth-century naturalist, a homicide detective, and a woman who is happily married to a bear. Their elusive collectivity suggests, but never quite defines, the floating authorial presence that haunts them. Gerstler's abiding interests--in love and mourning, in science and pseudo-science, in the idea of an afterlife--are strongly evident in these new poems, which are full of strong emotion, language play, surprising twists, and a wicked sense of black humor.

Editorial Reviews

Amy Gerstler is an original. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for her eighth book, Bitter Angel (1990), the brash, witty Gerstler has been linked to the Language poets for her mischievous subversions of language and keen sense of the absurdity of modern life. She may also be associated with the so-called Elliptical school, as one of the pioneers of the technique of fragmented "selves" defying a unitary authorial voice or context that forms their defining characteristic. Yet her latest book shows the poet one step ahead of the crowds. While remaining as wildly imaginative, lavishly eccentric, and blackly humorous as ever, the Gerstler of Medicine strikes a more serious, reflective tone. These delicate tracings of the experience of living gently make visible the indelible marks of suffering, death, alienation, and cosmic unfairness. Yet as its title indicates, the book does not rest upon pointing out the mere fact of these essential conditions of existence -- but rather pushes further, investigating the ways in which we cope, combat, or console ourselves in the face of the inevitable.

The collection opens on a jubilant note, with a benediction for a newborn baby, followed by a surprisingly cheerful poem calling a young woman in a coma back to life: "You haven't gulped down all your allotted portion/ of joy yet, so you must wake up." But the book almost feels deliberately organized along a gradient of increasing solemnity, with these poems forming the light-hearted end of the spectrum: Soon light rhyming lyrics elide into hilariously sarcastic narratives, which in turn give way to restless chartings of surreal, ominous situations. The long piece "Lovesickness" (labeled "a radio play for four disembodied voices") rings with the eerie inevitability of a Greek chorus; it operates primarily through various forms of listing, most devastatingly in the cases of the kinds of excuses we make for our weaknesses ("The antibiotics talking!" "Postpartum depression," "I got fired") and of the ways in which we claim to be able to treat them ("...exercise, hearing good news, study, sleep, music, mirth," "herbs purges cordials fasts purges and elixirs..."). After "Lovesickness," the trend toward increasing gravity continues with a few exceptions through the second half of the book, which takes on funerals, disease, and inexpurgable feelings of inadequacy. In these poems, Gerstler speaks sincerely about grief, dread and the shocking fragility of the human form; we might echo the comment of one of her characters, a physician, who remarks: "One sees here clearly...what a flimsy garment the flesh is."

Yet if this serious tone comes as a surprise to those of Gerstler's readers who have learned to expect her volcanic exuberance and wildness of wit, it will not prove a disappointment. Rather than dampening her quicksilver associations or fanciful word play, it actually serves to ground them, liberating her work from the danger of sounding like empty language games or rambunctious, adolescent performance. As a result, this collection's many memorable lines are sprinkled most liberally through its final third, with the final poem, "Nightfall," among its best:

      Her ashes reside in a pale blue vase
      her sister, a glassblower, blew. She died
      at twenty-nine, several decades too early.
      This body, now destroyed, dissolves in light.
      Light is a solvent, the means by which
      we're translated into another medium.
      I could feel her rising a thousand times
      during the service. A man in the pew
      in front of me had a bad case of fungus
      behind his right ear. I couldn't help
      noticing. You cannot intercede
      in his grief. There's a kind of wine
      made from bones, someone said. Supposedly,
      it tastes like milk. Bagpipes were played
      at the graveside. But I digress.
      A period of mourning has no definite
      duration. Our search for what endures
      continues. The fragrance of ink,
      breasts freckled as pears, asses
      that clench, jiggle and glow
      like the animated planets they are.
      Dinosaur remains full of unlaid eggs
      have been dug up. An auctioneer
      takes bids on a hank of Abe Lincoln's
      hair. When the dead are well cared for,
      they enter the earth and are happy.

Instead of welcoming a newborn, this last poem bids farewell to someone who has already been, as another poem puts it, "emptied into infinity." Yet "Nightfall" perhaps provides us with the key to understanding how Gerstler is able to maintain her fleet-footed, romping inventiveness even during these explorations of such serious themes. The poem proves that even the song of death does not have to be a sorrowful one. In fact, one of Gerstler's abiding traits is her singularly vivid celebration of matter, and this collection is no exception: ambergris, nutgrass, caviar, milk thistle, frigid gizzards, teeth like "broken pillars," a tree like a "stand of liquid amber," and ice like "a plague of glass" appear in these pages. Perhaps it is this deep engagement with the ephemeral world that constitutes the kind of care which the dead require, an engagement which is, paradoxically, experienced by the living as "[o]ur search for what endures."

—Monica Ferrell

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Penguin Poets
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    Prayer for Jackson

Dear Lord, fire-eating custodian of my soul,
author of hemaphrodites, radishes,
and Arizona's rosy sandstone,
please protect this wet-cheeked baby
from disabling griefs. Help him sense when
to rise to his feet and make his desires known,
and when to hit the proverbial dirt. On nights
it pleases thee to keep him sleepless, summon
crickets, frogs and your chorus of nocturnal
birds so he won't conclude the earth's gone mute.
Make him astute as Egyptian labyrinths that keep
the deads' privacy inviolate. Give him his mother's
swimming ability. Make him so charismatic
that even pigeons flirt with him, in their nervous,
avian way. Grant him the clearmindedness
of a midwife who never winces when tickled.
Let him be adventurous as a menu of ox tongue hash,
lemon rind wine and pinecone Jell-O. Fill him with awe:
for the seasons, minarets' sawtoothed peaks,
the breathing of cathedrals, and all that lives—
for one radiant day or sixty pitiful years.
Bravely, he has ventured among us, disguised
as a newcomer, shedding remarkably few tears.

    To a Young Woman in a Coma

You haven't gulped down your allotted portion
of joy yet, so you must wake up. Recover,
and live to bear children—a girl and a boy—
twins who kiss in the womb and fox trot
on your bladder shortly before they're born.
Find your way back to us. Landmarks include
the lines on your mother's piercedearlobes,
jagged crags of your boyfriend's chipped tooth.
Come up from the basement. Climb those damp
plank stairs and reenter the squinty glare
of consciousness. Grip the rickety handrail.
Go slowly, past jars streaked with mushroom
dust and enriched mud from the house's bowels.
Let your name be written in orange marmalade
across the breakfast table. Reel in your soul.
Tell it to float back, through the portals
of mouth and nose, into its flesh envelope,
so you may enjoy the privileges of being
flooded with pain, inhaling rank hospital
food fumes and seeing your family's patient,
inescapable faces, too beautiful for words.
Surface, even if it feels like you're crashing
through a plate glass window. There's too much
left undone. We can still smell the out-of-doors
all over you: daffodil bulbs, rye bread
and cider. So wiggle your toes. Groan.
Open those gunky eyes. You need to grow older,
have those babies, try to describe what
the other side was like, go ice skating.


When the spiritual axe fell, did you wake up inside The White Orchard,
that snowy van Gogh we both admired? Are you lost in his chilly
idyllic painting, under skies filled with white dots he smeared in
with his thumbs? How dare you. How dare you die. Now you
express an absolute restfulness. A sober way of existing, unlike mine.
A shot of tequila gleams on the table. Its vinegarish drip
gilds my innards—that's my report from the salt mine
of the senses tonight. You're supposed to be a ghost now, living on
in shipwrecked tatters like a shredded sailboat sail; sans dirty linen,
gritty winds, and the bane of shaving every day, which you hated.
Once you began to lose your mind, you wisely refused to shave
or be shaved. You put up surprisingly big fights, and I found
myself glad to see you so vehemently defying your keepers,
including me, as I chased you around with a red and white striped
can of shaving cream. Not that you could run much by then. So.
You've had a fortnight's silence. An autumnal lull. Sat out a break
between quarters in the cosmic basketball game. Come back
as a crawfish, a leek, a handful of gravel hens ingest to use as teeth,
a fake preacher who can't control his wolfish streak. I don't care
what you wear. But come back soon. Not seeking revenge
or relief, to which you're mightily entitled, but to meet your new
darkhaired niece and answer a few routine questions.

    The Bear-Boy of Lithuania

Girls, take my advice, marry an animal. A wooly one is most consoling. Find a fur man, born midwinter. Reared in the mountains. Fond of boxing. Make sure he has black rubbery lips, and a sticky sweet mouth. A winter sleeper. Pick one who likes to tussle, who clowns around the kitchen, juggles hot baked potatoes, gnaws playfully on a corner of your apron. Not one mocked by his lumbering instincts, or who's forever wrestling with himself, tainted with shame, itchy with chagrin, but a good-tempered beast who plunges in greedily, grinning and roaring. His backslapping manner makes him popular with the neighbors, till he digs up and eats their Dutch tulip bulbs. Then you see just how stuffy human beings can be. On Sundays his buddies come over to play watermelon football. When they finally get tired, they collapse on heaps of dried grass and leaves, scratching themselves elaborately, while I hand out big hunks of honeycomb. They've no problem swallowing dead bees stuck in the honey.

A bear-boy likes to stretch out on the floor and be roughly brushed with a broom. Never tease him about his small tail, which is much like a chipmunk's. If you do, he'll withdraw to the hollow of some tree, as my husband has done whenever offended since he first left the broad-leafed woodlands to live in this city, which is so difficult for him. Let him be happy in his own way: filling the bathtub with huckleberries, or packing dark, earthwormy dirt under the sofa. Don't mention the clawmarks on the refrigerator. (You know he can't retract them.) Nothing pleases him more than a violent change in climate, especially if it snows while he's asleep and he wakes to find the landscape blanketed. Then his teeth chatter with delight. He stamps and paws the air for joy. Exuberance is a bear's inheritance. He likes northern light. Excuse me, please. His bellow summons me.

Let me start again. True, his speech is shaggy music. But by such gruff instruction, I come to know love. It's difficult to hear the story of his forest years with dry eyes. He always snuffs damply at my hand before kissing it. My fingers tingle at the thought of that sensitive, mobile nose. You've no idea how long his tongue is. At night, I get into bed, pajama pockets full of walnuts. He rides me around the garden in the wheelbarrow now that I'm getting heavy with his cubs. I hope our sons will be much like their father, but not suffer so much discomfort wearing shoes.

    The Naturalist's Wife

He was a stricken puritan when we met,
a bit of prude and a clod. I saw his snapshot
in the family album, as a kid, grinning,
the skeleton of a prehistoric horse sprawled
at his feet. He had a condor egg in each hand,
and he held them, even at age ten, as though
they were the breasts of his beloved. Why
this picture made me mad to have his hands
on me is anybody's guess. He looked a bit like
a newly hatched cuckoo, with his funny jutting
tufts of hair. After he became famous,
on his birthday each year, a Swiss rabbit fancier
would send him a crate of rare hares. The first
time he kissed me he prefaced the peck
by wondering aloud: "Now, how many bees
have visited this little flower?" I twisted the sprig
of mistletoe he'd given me and whispered
under my breath, "Far too few." I did resent
some of the sights I was later privy to—
such as his sketches of a dead elephant's
stomach contents. During the third or fourth
year of our marriage a strange revolution
took place, and for a while, the government
of his tongue was overthrown. That was hard
to bear. Our sixth-born son (the co-discoverer
of oxygen and of a breed of green lizards
who pose for photographs when the weather
turns warm) journeyed far and wide,
like his father, slept in fossil beds,
adapted to dark caverns and practiced oratory
at the seashore. But he wrote me each week,
homesick for the whistle of my dented copper
kettle and the reek of my heartsease tea. Who
stands the chance of living the longest? The unhappy
salamander pinched in the heron's big, tweezery
beak is offended by the question, which I
therefore withdraw. My husband willed his library
to an untaught wildman from the woods.
It included a volume of essays about dew,
a monograph on what clings to the feet
of migratory birds and the autobiography
of a squid named William. My husband,
fingers sticky with pinfeathers and speckled
with ink stains, has been dead these ten years.
When we are reunited, in heaven, or purgatory,
or at some bird sanctuary, or on an overgrown riverbank
(I really don't care where), I know he'll still
be obsessed with finding out why different varieties
of gooseberries vary in hairiness. Hand in hand,
we'll perch on a low branch and watch a tree full
of weasels hissing and showing their teeth.

    Yom Kippur in Utah

Come sit in the absolving shade of a plane tree
and contemplate the forgiveness you crave.
Lists of sins you committed during the past year
are whispered back into existence. They sift
into consciousness, surprised at all the attention
they're getting, shy as mice and houseflies
who find themselves canonized. You haven't
done enough for anyone you love. You've
neglected your parents. You spend eons sleeping.
You're envious of everyone—your silent
father, puttering around in the garage,
assembling ships in bottles, his beard
white as a christening gown. Even the squeaky
front door makes you want to trade places:
it opens and closes so easily. Now, out of nowhere,
it's snowing. Broken white lines slant across
your visual field. Sloppy, sleety blobs splat
on shake roofs, streak the smoke-darkened
brickwork of Victorian homes that rule
this part of town, just south of the graveyard.
Long, grassy and partly unfenced, the cemetery's
arranged by faiths. Jewish section, Catholic area,
the Christian hills—all with separate entrances.
Each plot boasts its own address. Pink
or dark marble stones decorated with roses,
praying hands, crosses or stars (a young boy's
marker is chiseled with dinosaurs) preserve
curious names like Wilfred, Adeline, Barnett—
solid citizens who knew the virtue of eating
three big home-cooked meals each day.
These upright neighbors' titles belong
on granite slabs, in pretty typefaces
with lilting flourishes at the ends of letters. Be
positive and philosophical when confronted
with pain, they say. Sleep in Jesus. Sleep
in belief. The Mormons here can convert you
even after you've passed away. That's how much
they care about your salvation. Did the past,
that greased but creaky machine, hum along
to a more complex rhyme scheme than ours?
Were its griefs worthier, more ornate,
better attended? Were our dead elders
read to sleep more completely? Were they
better versed—supplied with richer texts
mourners felt embedded in as they sipped
home-brewed oblivion at wakes? Or were
our forebears' sufferings just as blunted,
obscured by the billowing scrims of religion
and tight-lipped denial, their spirits struck dumb,
cinched in by belts, girdles and trusses? The snow
downgrades to rain. It pinstripes the glittery
windows. There's a bright line in the latest MRI
of your brother's skull. Is that some kind of shining
path too? He's on his way to the Cayman Islands
to go diving. Fish hang in the clear water, festive
as Christmas ornaments: crimson and gold, orange
and lime green. Puffers, rockfish and rays wait
as he struggles into his wet suit to enter their element.
And what on earth are you doing in Utah, so far
from your duty, where it's believed dead spinsters
and stillborn infants wed in heaven? Here below,
in the realms of honey and mud, steeples snag
the sky. The air smells serious and holy as a felon
or a church elder wearing Dad's brand of aftershave—
a bracing, South Sea island scent favored by
that kind-eyed, grizzled man who sired you,
who likes to eat sauerkraut with tiny meatballs,
whom you love along unseeable frequencies
as he wipes his mouth with a white napkin
and urges you to confess everything.

    The Story of Toasted Cheese

    Toasted cheese hath no master.

—a proverb

Toasted cheese hath no master.
Streams of priests running
from pink bungalows faster
and faster were seen reading
The Fronds of God,
prophesying disaster.
Indoors, toddlers munched crumbs
of ancient wall plaster.
You slapped her for calling Dad
a "majestic bastard"?
At the mouth of a sacred cave,
kneeling in gravel, he asked her.
The ostrich race will take place
in that picturesque cow pasture.
Will you have the oysters Rockefeller
now to begin your repast, sir?
Her premonition consisted
of "seeing" her dear sister
romanced by a sandblaster.
Monique loved the rough, comforting
hum of that scruffy black cat's purr.
The botanist finally recognized
(tears filling her overworked eyes)
a rare, blue, Chinese aster.

    A Nautical Tale

Her jailer and her tailor posted bail.
But a sailor stole the mailer
containing the ill-fated payment
from the safe in the bondsman's trailer,
tripping over a low railing
around the trailer park's carp pond
as he made his hasty escape.
His shipmates always joked
that the old salt had an ocean-soaked
peach pit for brains, or maybe a caper,
and that this short shrift upstairs
(which untold cruel years at sea
worsens rather than repairs)
accounted for his twisted, driftwood-gray
malaise as well as his famous lack
of restraint. Lifting her skirts
and her bail, he kidnapped the burglaress
in question, leaving a trail
of barnacle shells and tattered writs.
On board, the crew, drunk and groping
for their wits, heard her salivate
under her gag, as the whaler breasted
choppy waters. Finally he untied her,
amidships, seized her by the hips
and roughly kissed her peppery lips,
while the cabin boy (also a kidnap victim),
screamed repeatedly, "Y'all better call me
Mister!" Weeks later, by the time
they'd reached the island chain,
the female thief was frailer,
and those nail holes in the cabin boy's hands
and feet had healed into typical blisters.


The world cowers and draws away from you.
Lisping rivers whisper watery rumors,
like Your dad's in jail, but he'll be back
for Christmas, armed to the teeth
A friend finds himself suffering
unbearable facial pain. Another man
you admire was warned by his team of MDs
that any attempt at sex could cause
a massive heart attack. The bird perched
on this drainpipe gargles his song
so rustily he seems to be a pip-squeak
machine—feathers fake, gizzard full
of tiny gears. You can still smell
the brimstone from last night's
refinery fire on the streets this morning.
Sadness inhabits your every cell.
It erupts from pores, your new perfume.
The brave few who draw close to you
are treated to a quick whiff:
part eau de regret, part ruined brewery.
Half the planet away, a volcano's
spitting up rocks big as trucks,
then vomiting columns of water
from the lake that's been stuck
down its throat since it was formed.
Maybe you can relate to the volcano's pain.
I'd like to erect a monument
to all loves lost to me. Building
materials would be blocks of lava,
and things that start with the letter "G"—
gunnysacks, glassworms and gingersnaps,
for instance, plus dozens of bottles
of grappa Dad left moldering
in the basement when he lit out
for a crime spree. I'd also decorate
my memorial with these green gems
he hid behind the false wall in his closet,
in that trunk covered with obscene graffiti.
Oh, he'll never come home.
Thank goodness it rains occasionally,
or there'd be no hope of breeze,
pardon, relief. Everything's dripping ...
and a milliliter of comfort's wrung
from each plink of water into more water,
like coins jingling in the pockets
of the bodiless, who no longer need them.

    An Attempt at Solace

Thin ribbons of fear snake bluely through you like a system of rivers.
We need a cloudburst or soothing landscape fast, to still this panic.
Maybe a field of dracaena, or a vast stand of sugar pines—generous,
gum-yielding trees—to fill our minds with vegetable wonder and
keep dread at bay. Each night before we sleep, grazing animals file
soundlessly by us, with kind looks in their eyes. Their calm, accepting
expressions crowd out darker images that buzz and swarm as if our pillowed
heads were beehives.

Even the monks I studied were in sore need of comfort. They considered
themselves inmates, bit their sooty fingernails to the quick. I often
caught them sobbing at dusk, terrified of each sunset's accompaniment,
an adverse fate they heard oompah-ing up over the horizon like infernal
tuba music.

Everyone we love's under constant threat. A blood-smeared boat's
anchored in the Gulf of Mexico, motor still running. The virus decimates
our ranks unchecked. Its victims must choose between madness
and blindness. The aged, whose natural heat begins to fail them, flail
and rave, uncomforted. Physicians continue to nod off during surgeries.
Flies zoom through sickrooms, loud as prop planes.

It's not raining regular rain. These droplets are greasy, and they burn.
All the frogs are long gone. Are we just paper dolls or pencil sketches to
our maker, to be snipped apart or painted away at whim? We fell asleep
last night in each other's arms. This morning we wake in a strangely
decorated classroom. Sitting erect at uncomfortable desks, restless as
wild guinea pigs, we see our would-be teacher swallow pill after pill
made of dried, ground-up spiders.

    Scorched Cinderella

This sooty beauty can't yet shed light.
But soon she'll exude a myopic glow
even our cynical paperboy won't be immune to.
Her little hands are cold as Saturn.
She has the accusing eyes of some dying
feline. Her unfettered mind grinds like
a sawmill, or it tinkles like chandeliers
breezes are fingering. She ignites
ne'er-do-wells and solid citizens
alike. She demanded we tattoo an axe
and a skull on her pelvic girdle:
guideposts for explorers hoping to plant
their flags in her lost continent.
Her hair's a forest of totem poles.
Her feet, scentless orchids, cherish
their seclusion in the twin greenhouses
of her heavy corrective shoes. She dines
on hawk wings, beets and unspeakable
custards. How can any of us, daughters
of our mother's disastrous first marriage,
hope to land husbands with her around?
We suffer by comparison with every tick
of the clock. Some say that next to her
we're like stray dogs who scavenge grass
all winter, or quick lizards skittering
along pantry shelves behind dusty pickle
jars. We've locked our sister up, covered
her with tiny cuts. She insists she likes
her hair better since we singed it.
She says people are whispering inside
the air conditioner. It's getting harder
to slap her awake every day to face
the purer girl we're scouring her down to,
but she's still worth a detour,
if you happen to be passing through.

Meet the Author

Amy Gerstler is a writer of fiction, poetry, and journalism whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including the Paris Review and Best American Poetry. Her 1990 book Bitter Angel won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Previous titles from Penguin are Crown of Weeds, 1997, and Nerve Storm, 1993.

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Medicine 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A kind loner slowly pads in, glacing at the cats as she walked in.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Juniper~Hello I am a med cat. This is my sisters kit who got hurt real bad. Sadky I can not help. I hve done all I can but nothing works! I would like to join as a med cat specializing in helping she-cats give birth. Also StarlingKit may need surgery. Dippedher head her violet eyes shining.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fallingkit troted to the medicine room to learn.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Padded around.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jion a clan at elt
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I need a clan my name is thunderheart
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Me and Flash will figure somthing out i promise. She isnt on a lot anyway. I have to go cheak on Owlpaw
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Smokystar sighed. "Fine."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago