The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Gary J. Whitehead

Purgatory Chasm


Now I spelunk through time,
thinking my way between heaves
of doubt, feeling
in the dark for passages
and hints of diffuse illumination,
less sure than when, as a boy,
I slid head-first into that womb
of glacial confusion,
probing with a diminishing
beam slick seams and strange
formations—Corn Crib
and Coffin, Pulpit
and Fat Man’s Misery.
The point then was to slink
as deep as I might, lose myself
in dead-ends and sharp enjambments
until, too tired to move,
penlight dead, I’d lie panting
and panicked in cool blindness
like a wounded mole.
Was this the purgatory
I’d been taught in school,
postmortem lay-over?
Sandwiched in granite,
I loved the not-knowing,
and I still do—the crawl forward,
word after word,
the glimmer on the rockface,
and, finally, the way out
and the white so bright
that my eyes, without
my wanting, must close.

Gary J. Whitehead

The Temple Toggle


O, for a muse of water, for a wind,
for an open sea and a breach.

Curse this earthy beach, its dune,
its plover-love of scavenge and peep.

Here, by harbor docks, gulls on updrafts
scan shell-strewn mudflats.

A cormorant, wet-winged, in cruciform,
stands amid its own white scat.

Enough of birds and hateful people.
Enough of the terra firma

set senate-like in its stolid form.
Give me sea legs. Give me nothing

but sea slurping, sea slapping a hull
and spilling over gunwales.

Give me a good beating of sun,
my wounds salted by sea winds.

To hell with a cowhide lash,
a seamen’s bethel, and a Quaker grave.

Bathe me in whale oil and spermaceti.
Give me a single sniff of ambergris.

Give me a whale boat’s motley crew.
There’s something ready to blow

just below the surface. I can see it.
But what, when I drive my iron will into it,

will keep the slick blade in the thick fat
when that leviathan dives and takes me

skimming over pews of swells?
We need a new notion. How else

will America light its dark, dark rooms?




GARY J. WHITEHEAD's third book of poetry, A Glossary of Chickens, was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets and published in 2013 by Princeton University Press. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and has been featured on Garrison Keillor's NPR program The Writer's Almanac. Whitehead has been the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and the Princeton University Distinguished Secondary School Teaching Award. A featured poet at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and the Princeton Poetry Festival, he teaches English at Tenafly High School in New Jersey and lives in the lower Hudson valley of New York.


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