The New Self by Steve Gehrke

The New Self
Are you of or not of brain, matter’s boss
              or its crevasse, are you the body itself,
or more than that, immortal you, crouched
             in flesh, like a vampire packed into a bat?
Are you housed in me or not? The tenant
             or the landlord of my skin? Am I your
avatar? Are you my East Berlin? Are we an I
             or each other’s synonym? Last night,
the train I was on dimmed then re-electrified,
             and I thought again that we are conscious
a lot less often than we suppose, that half the time
             in us you’re half reposed. I was in
South Orange again, city of my former self’s last
             stand. Do you remember him, your swallowed
twin, the child king whom you deposed? Oh,
             I know: you think you’re the buried light,
the jeweled glow, the sunlight falling through
             the falling snow. But I’ve seen the uranium
laced through your walls: you’re an equation only
             destruction solves. Who else but you
starts each day with masturbation and ends
             each night with gin? And so how
should I begin? Four years ago, you rose
             in me like a fin. It started as an overflow,
a drop of go, some royal beast in me, all gasoline
             and yeast, unhinging its own jaw
to accelerate the feast, the rails of thought so greased
             that the outer world began to skew,
as in that moment on a train when the view
             becomes a wash of hues. There were clues.
Phantom music in the air. At times, I’d look down
             at my body and think, “How’d you get there?”
One day, I de-napped to find myself entrapped
             within the tangled logic of a subway
map. All day, I’d refrain, I’d double-track.
             I’d talk to myself and myself talked back.
Was it you? That tick I felt within the trick
             of thought? That wick that curled itself
around me, not exploding, just making a constant
             tick-tick-tick that finally convinced me
that I was sick, that there was a cascade of toxins
             in the air, that there
was something queer about the neighbor’s
             stare, that charade of signals everywhere,
an air raid in the brain, something in me
             left unpaid, a cosmic debt in arrears.
Some nights, I’d hear the voices of my parents coming
             near, like waves that overlapped—
she’d slap him, he’d slap her back—their rage
             a single note that climbed its staff for years,
my siblings and I in the closet with our fingers
             in our ears, though still I heard one night
the knife drawer heaved back, as if they really
             might slice each other or the house in half,
and then my thoughts unweaved and I began
             to laugh. And it is funny, isn’t it,
the way that which starts as confession ends
             in blame, this constant search
for the marionettist of your brain, the ghost
             who stole the controls to your soul.
The truth is: we embrace the past that keeps
             us whole. Again, I feel that treble in the skin,
something at the edge of sight but closing in,
             the world a picture that won’t hang on the wall
quite right. Again, the double agent of the heart
             tries to take the past apart, but now I sense
that the investigation is the crime, that it may be time
             to give up on this which-is-which,
this who-is-who, this endless voodoo in which the self
             I am keeps evading the curses of the self
I mean to be, or to admit at least that the lyric cracks
             its voice trying to sing what’s ugly into praise,
and this language is the jeweler’s bluff, a diamond
             that scuffs between the teeth, a perfume misting
foul air. Admit, admit, that what you craved
             was sex those days, and after a one-night tryst,
you became convinced you’d contracted aids.
             Say it plain: you thought you’d passed the disease
on to your wife. In longhand, you wrote statistics
             across the page, Googled infection rates,
a one-in-a-million chance the battalion of hotline
             workers liked to say, but they couldn’t smudge
that chance away. And did you let this madness in
             to build a drama around your sin,
to become valedictorian of the damned, to turn
             from lion into lamb, as the murderer longs
to be the murdered one, and the king to swap
             places with the fool, the self you thought
you were so undone that you could only blame it
             on a coup, on a malignant growth, or on you,
my patsy, my herring, my phantom non grata, my ghoul,
             you who I insist must exist, because, if not,
who else was it that could have been so cruel?

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