Gabriel Spera

Winner of the 2018 Marica and Jan Vilcek Prize for Poetry

Read an interview with Gabriel Spera

A scratch, an itch, a chalky tickle no measure
of muffled coughing will dispel, a hairline sliver
of trout bone sewn within his throat, a growing pressure
near the gullet-lump named for the first man ever
to blame his fall on love, a splitting touch
as of a sculptor thumbing the hollow in the pale clay
of his windpipe, sapping the breath he can’t quite catch.
Soon, every swallow sears, each swirl of cabernet
is cut with lye, a hell precision engineered
for one who lived to eat—as though he hadn’t learned
already how life takes or twists what we hold most dear,
the heart’s fire of youth swapped for the heartburn
of middle age, which ends each feast at the medicine chest
uncapping the flawless form it once possessed.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

She spoke bluntly, the doctor, as though hiding her chagrin
at all the time they’d wasted chasing red herrings—
ulcers and reflux, bacterial infection. They’d begin
with the chemo right away, the first course pairing
an assortment of anti-emetics and a flight
of mood boosters. His slight frame was something to consider.
But though he tried to bulk up, his body stood firm, despite
the suppers his friends colluded to deliver,
his portions bland and easy to digest,
and even then, his wife still pulsed them in a blender
like she’d done for their daughter as she crawled about, obsessed
with stuffing her mouth with what the world surrendered,
unaware how little of what we meet rewards our kiss,
how softly hunger chokes on its own excess.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The IV bag: a cloud’s udder, dense gob of lacquer
drying as it drips, a jellyfish flagging in the wrack
of broken shells, an unyolked egg white, future
goblet on the tip of a glass blower’s flute, a sack
of time condensed drip-tock from a backyard still.
The tube: a string gone slack without a puppeteer
to tug it, a sleeping viper, a vine, a spill
of vermicelli, a nematode keen to disappear
into the cool earth of his arm, a power cord
that plugs him to the world’s last outlet. His hand: a cast
of puddled wax, a waning moon, a door
left timidly ajar, a sentry relieved at last
of his watch, a welcome waiting to be extended,
a root washed clean of what it loosely comprehended.

* * * * * * * * * *

Thanksgiving was his. By tradition, by default.
Such was his passion. He knew each chef’s provenance
and which food critics were worthy of their salt,
and, pressed about the new or trendy restaurants,
could predict which ones would last and which were finished.
His favorite, hands down, was the sushi bar best known
for the throbbing prawns they served up garnished
by their own incredulous heads. And of his own
formidable repertoire, his signature was the whole
seabass steamed simply in shreds of scallion and ginger.
In the kitchen, as anywhere, it’s hard to control
the urge to overdo, when all things clamor, hunger,
for excess and even the body seethes beneath its cover,
the magic soup pot that won’t stop bubbling over.

* * * * * * * * *

Then the radiation, like a cluster bomb
of atom-sized suns. Then the fallout, the scorched earth
of his flesh, the fatigue, the itch of skin too numb
to scratch. Then the odd shifts, the broth that tastes first
like breath, then lead, anchovies, iodine, the sprayed bullets
of canker sores, each spoon a vivisection
of his cheek. Then the failed seal in his gullet,
the acid froth that found his lungs, the infection,
the ICU, the feeding tube that she plugs
into his nose, scarcely bigger than the line an angler
might use to reel a marlin too huge to lug
on deck or cut loose. When the world dangles
by what little we can grasp, what is it that won’t surrender
when all we cling to threatens to pull us under?

* * * * * * * *

Within arm’s reach: the spoonful of tablets pulverized
for mixing in the water on the nightstand;
this week’s New Yorker, folded to the page her eyes
at last shut down on; a freshly laundered afghan,
phone for texts, the clicker for the flatscreen
channeled to the game. But his hand’s a machine long since
rusted out, a nugget turned lead through the obscene
alchemy of fatigue, the opium of finding no sense
in even trying. He can almost feel his muscles
and blood thinning, like his hair, the cells in bone
and vein vanishing like rats from a doomed vessel.
And still: breath, though the air itself weighs down
on his chest like the x-ray blanket the dentist used.
He’d laugh at that, if he’d the strength to be amused.

* * * * * * *

Even the fish was suddenly too much trouble,
requiring more intent than he could muster,
though it made no sound beyond the filter’s babble,
needed no stroking, no walking, did not prosper
with talk as even the philodendron did. The best
of pets, it simply hugged the neon gravel, shy
and coy, or hovered by the phony pirate chest,
a form made sleek through fear, its lidless eyes
held wide, obsessed, imagining a mouth
in every shadow. Each visit, we’d shake a bit
of food into the tank, as though seasoning a broth
with flecks of crushed red pepper, pausing to watch it
butt its head against the sky, strangely driven
to swallow every star that rained from heaven.

* * * * * *

Late night: ER, a sudden knothole in his throat
that cut out the middleman of his mouth and brought
his inhalations closer to his heart.
Then the g-tube, the straightest shortcut to his gut,
the clear hose like an umbilical cord sewn
just above his navel. No more choking on broth
or talk, no laughter, now his flesh had grown
fed up with his ungovernable mouth
in favor of a cleaner paradigm—
like a starfish with its beak and anus gemmed
amid its radiating arms. In time,
he’d venture out, in white gauze collar and brimmed
black hat—like a vicar, with no gospel to extol,
no alms for the lepers hungry to be made whole.

* * * * *

A backlash, a body blow: What stunted the tumor stunned
his muscles, his neck’s whole scaffold rigidized
like leather left to the mercy of the sun
and air, the tanning light. And still, though his eyes
be set in stone, it is a richness, time’s grace defined,
to settle in the shade and see the air smudged
with hummingbirds, the fanfare of trumpet vines
and irises, the cherry tree’s popcorning buds.
Sometimes, what takes leave of us can’t help but take
part of us, leaves little of us worth having, takes pains
to leave no peace, no faith that every fever must break.
Sometimes, what leaves us frees us, and what remains
holds soul enough, the body’s empty rooms closed off,
each voiceless breath again fulfilled by loss.

* * * *

The recurrence, the growth on his spine like must on cheese,
the battered artery, the surgery—scaled back, a tactical
retreat—to buffer the vessel from further siege.
Vocal chords: collateral damage, safe house for the radical
cells that must be crushed before they do harm.
What would he say anyway that couldn’t be read
in his face, swollen as though pelted by a storm
of bees? He’d had enough, or rather, no longer had
enough to keep losing chunks of himself, ill-equipped
to envision any future worth suffering further for.
But who could say? And so again, the chemo drip,
the radiation and resections, though more and more
there was less of him to sacrifice, less margin of error,
less darkness separating now and forever.

* * *

What can it mean when pathology contradicts
the surgeon’s own eyes? A gift horse, or a Trojan?
The knife again, hashing out a length of quadriceps
to reconstruct the vocal chords, the body, as every surgeon
can attest, plastic, pragmatic, amenable to graft.
For weeks, his neck and jaw are fused, immobile,
his eyes and ears swollen shut, his mind locked fast,
a captive, in that cramped oubliette, unable
to do more than subdivide time. And then, without warning,
light breaks in, and voices no longer slog through water
to reach him. Not that he can answer, but most mornings
it’s enough to watch the world, its wonder, his wife and daughter
reading by the bed like normal people every day,
no loss to put behind them, no future to wish away.

* *

Hospital time: the check you can’t cash, the feast
you can’t eat. Still, like a lame beast, it limps and crawls
until, an age later, he’s fit to be released—
hobbled, thin, weak, but stable. So, when he scrawls,
“I’ve turned a corner,” we read that in a hopeful sense:
not that he’s given up, embraced his likely end,
but that he’s found, despite conflicting evidence,
even the least life is worth what it inflicts. He stands
as though to show he can and shuffles to feed the fish,
then sinks back to the bed, visibly overcome,
watching as it skims the windfall, as though famished,
then sinks down to the candy-colored gravel, dumb
with wonder, Zen master immersed in the here and now,
unable to do more than echo wow, wow, wow.