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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."