Michael Steffen
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Blood Narrative



I’ve spent enough hours on a gurney to know

my remaining years are probably numbered

in single digits, after which I may or may not

pass through walls and join my kin

on some eternal, cloud-filled playground.

I’m not meant for heaven’s fluffy

non-landscape, or any of hell’s nine circles. 

Mine is the dogma of earthly pleasure,

the crisp, made bed, the fresh linens,


the fucking, the food, the cold glass of beer.  

I’ve seen the Cubs win a pennant,   

my two-year-old toddle out the door

and return a savvy businesswoman.

I’ve burped my fussing grandnephew—

seven pounds in an oversized onesie

labeled, Ladies, I Have Arrived—

and already nagged him about college. 


I am still in love with the scent

of freshly mown grass. Even though

my days are flaming red, veins burning

from eight cycles of chemo, even though

I feel in my blood I am inching away, 

I’m not prepared for the story

that goes on without me, not ready

to relinquish the rapture


of a backyard nap in my hammock,

or the Quantum Physics for Babies

cardboard picture book

I’ve slowly read and re-read to Noah,

or the many pounds of salted cashews

I’ve yet to eat, pastrami and eggs,

peach margaritas, pizza with extra

cheese and pepperoni…


I’m not ready to give up rocking

to Beggar’s Banquet, the best album

ever made. I treasure my baggy blue jeans,

my threadbare, Harvard sweatshirt.

I’m not willing to abandon

my second favorite place in the world: 

the car cemetery next to the Super 8

where—for the once road-worthy—

time continues its remorseless interrogation. 


                  from Blood Narrative (Main Street Rag Poetry Press, 2021)


"First Things First" 


No wonder our parents were so intent

on teaching us what to do when

the phone’s ringing, someone’s at the door,

our hand is on a hot stove,

and we need to go to the bathroom—

to be absolutely certain, as adults,

in that baffling shuffle of choices,

where to begin, and why.


You’d think it would be obvious

in the echelon of things to do,

but someone at some point 

dragged a cart from a barn

and placed his horse behind it—

the earliest failure of common sense—

man and beast standing in rain,

puzzling over their lack of movement.


                  from Bad Behavior (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2012)


Grünewald's Body of Christ



The leaden face emptied.

And here, a wood-slivered arm,

the torso's bilious patina, toenails bleeding

like wineskins, the foot's gaunt curvature.

Mattias Grünewald paints

a syphilitic messiah, scabbed putrefact,

"mortal anthropos," like radical sex,

Christ dead from love—an altarpiece

for patients at the Isenheim hospice—

thousands thinned by a spirochete,

chancred, in white linen, lifted by monks

to face a polyptych—body, soul

and faith, the "suffering servant."

The gothic of St. Anthony's panel:

a gnome crouches, lumpish,

festered, his right foot webbed,

the only figure recognizably human,

his left hand clutching Anthony's breviary.

Syphilis came to Europe from Haiti,

the old story goes, spread

by Columbus' sailors (the Cardinal

of Gurk, a bishop coadjutor

longtime sufferers).  Rumor had it

Henry VIII contracted the pox

from Cardinal Wolsey constantly

at his ear. Though sexual ailments

were commonly blamed on the French,

syphilis was known as the Spanish evil.  

But in Grünewald's painting,

syphilis becomes a part of God—

ravaged, swollen and sordid—a Christ

who contains all—pneumocystis,

Kaposi's sarcoma, T-cells diminishing,

each anonymous daughter and son—

a careful arrangement of muscle, of bone

fetus-curled in a mother's arms,

his gravecloth's fluttering drape,

a last brushtroke before the light fails.


              from Heart Murmur (Bordighera Press, 2009)






van Gogh's "Irises"



How they seem to tremble,

the breeze they tremble in



Prussian blue, Veronese

green, the scarlet

beneath that no one sees.


How one white flower,

apart from the rest,

its mouth opened wide,


sings a high note. She sings

a high note, while the others wave

their fat green arms,


nod their heads, conspiring,

darkening, how

they lean toward her


like assassins, and the ground

flames, the sun in her mouth,

how she faces them, trembling,


and sings.


               —from No Good at Sea (Legible Press, 2002)