Cover image for Medicine
Gerstler, Amy.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Penguin, 2000.
Physical Description:
x, 81 pages : portrait ; 23 cm.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3557.E735 M44 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Amy Gerstler has won acclaim for complex yet accessible poetry that is by turns extravagant, subversive, surreal, and playful. In her new collection, Medicine , she deploys a variety of dramatic voices, spoken by such disparate characters as Cinderella's wicked sisters, the wife of a nineteenth-century naturalist, a homicide detective, and a woman who is happily married to a bear. Their elusive collectivity suggests, but never quite defines, the floating authorial presence that haunts them. Gerstler's abiding interests--in love and mourning, in science and pseudo-science, in the idea of an afterlife--are strongly evident in these new poems, which are full of strong emotion, language play, surprising twists, and a wicked sense of black humor.

Author Notes

Amy Gerstler is a writer of fiction, poetry, and journalism whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including the Paris Review and Best American Poetry . Her 1990 book Bitter Angel won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Previous titles from Penguin are Crown of Weeds , 1997, and Nerve Storm , 1993.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Gerstler, a National Book Critics Circle award winner, uses a phrase that describes her mischievous, dramatic, and unpredictable poems: "volcanic imaginings." Constructed as solidly as buildings designed to withstand earthquakes, her prayers, laments, spells, and pronouncements channel great lyric eruptions. In one poem, Gerstler cajoles a woman in a coma; in another, she warns an infant about life's vagaries; and, in most, she ponders the pain of the human condition and the desperate remedies we employ in attempts to heal ourselves--eroticism, religion, narcotics, magic. She contrasts the rightness of nature, where everything, including disease, has a purpose, to humanity's unending sense of alienation and vulnerability. Gerstler also celebrates beauty and absurdity, observes how the senses undermine the intellect, and reflects on the way science and superstition are brandished as antidotes to chaos. She even finds meaning and unexpected forms of solace in such disparate things as a broom, snow, criminal acts, and a dog's fear of fireworks. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

"Dear Lord, fire-eating custodian of my soul,/ author of hemaphrodites, radishes,/ and Arizona's rosy sandstone,/ please protect this wet-cheeked baby/ from disabling griefs," Gerstler's eighth book of poems begins with a "Prayer for Jackson" that invokes a parent's hopes ("make him so charismatic/ that even pigeons flirt with him") and fears for a childDeasily transposable onto this often luminous book. Following the NBCC Award-winning Bitter Angel, 1998's Crown of Weeds and some short fiction for magazines, this collection offers prose poems with long chains of noun phrases circling around delicate subjects (snow, solace); column-shaped, short-lined fantasias, often driven by rhyme, and also given to lists; and edgy, nearly surreal, loosely narrative poems in unrhymed, talk-like lines. Gerstler is a James Tate-like master of many familiar postmodern tropes, but the best poems here always have a distinctive spin, run through her abiding interests the intersections of self, soul sickness and cultural drek. A poem based on the ostensible proverb "toasted cheese hath no master" works itself out as an exploration of rhymes like "pasture," "repast, sir," and "Chinese aster." "The Bride Goes Wild" consists entirely of film titles ("I ConfessDI'm No Angel, I Am the Law!"). And the longish title poem, spoken by a kind of mystical doctor, prides itself on incorporating brief catalogues of diseases, folk remedies, organs and tissues, and free-floating verbs: "We read, breed, hope rarebit's/ on tonight's menu, consult our watches." The radio play "Lovesickness" (for "four disembodied voices") seems genuinely meant for performance: its explorations of eros, physiology and distraction might sound wonderful on the air. If a fiction-writer's taste for rhetorical bravado can be obtrusive at times ("Away with your homely reproaches, you rough bundle of straw"), on the whole this is a vibrant and passionate collection of poems, one whose standouts are memorable and humane. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Bitter Angel (1991), Gerstler here offers a fanfare of language that rolls over itself and brings to fruition verbal melodies, dramatic juxtaposition, and interior monolog. These glib commentaries on stepmothers ("Cinderella Scorched") mother-son relationships ("To My Husband, on the First Anniversary of His Mother's Death"), and the cultural, philosophical, and political boundaries of religion ("A Non-Christian on Sunday, Yom Kippur in Utah") make for entertaining verbal swordplay as well as socially significant compositions. Although the subjects of Gerstler's poems might make readers feel challenged, if not vulnerable, an unassuming language and a healthy sense of suspended disbelief will keep them moving bemusedly through Gerstler's deep thoughts. This is the author's third book, after Crown of Weeds and Nerve Storm, to be published in the "Penguin Poets" series. Highly recommended for high school readers and older.DAnn K. van Buren, Riverdale Country Sch., New York (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Excerpt     Prayer for Jackson Dear Lord, fire-eating custodian of my soul, author of hemaphrodites, radishes, and Arizona's rosy sandstone, please protect this wet-cheeked baby from disabling griefs. Help him sense when to rise to his feet and make his desires known, and when to hit the proverbial dirt. On nights it pleases thee to keep him sleepless, summon crickets, frogs and your chorus of nocturnal birds so he won't conclude the earth's gone mute. Make him astute as Egyptian labyrinths that keep the deads' privacy inviolate. Give him his mother's swimming ability. Make him so charismatic that even pigeons flirt with him, in their nervous, avian way. Grant him the clearmindedness of a midwife who never winces when tickled. Let him be adventurous as a menu of ox tongue hash, lemon rind wine and pinecone Jell-O. Fill him with awe: for the seasons, minarets' sawtoothed peaks, the breathing of cathedrals, and all that lives-- for one radiant day or sixty pitiful years. Bravely, he has ventured among us, disguised as a newcomer, shedding remarkably few tears.     To a Young Woman in a Coma You haven't gulped down your allotted portion of joy yet, so you must wake up. Recover, and live to bear children--a girl and a boy-- twins who kiss in the womb and fox trot on your bladder shortly before they're born. Find your way back to us. Landmarks include the lines on your mother's pierced earlobes, jagged crags of your boyfriend's chipped tooth. Come up from the basement. Climb those damp plank stairs and reenter the squinty glare of consciousness. Grip the rickety handrail. Go slowly, past jars streaked with mushroom dust and enriched mud from the house's bowels. Let your name be written in orange marmalade across the breakfast table. Reel in your soul. Tell it to float back, through the portals of mouth and nose, into its flesh envelope, so you may enjoy the privileges of being flooded with pain, inhaling rank hospital food fumes and seeing your family's patient, inescapable faces, too beautiful for words. Surface, even if it feels like you're crashing through a plate glass window. There's too much left undone. We can still smell the out-of-doors all over you: daffodil bulbs, rye bread and cider. So wiggle your toes. Groan. Open those gunky eyes. You need to grow older, have those babies, try to describe what the other side was like, go ice skating.     Nearby When the spiritual axe fell, did you wake up inside The White Orchard , that snowy van Gogh we both admired? Are you lost in his chilly idyllic painting, under skies filled with white dots he smeared in with his thumbs? How dare you. How dare you die. Now you express an absolute restfulness. A sober way of existing, unlike mine. A shot of tequila gleams on the table. Its vinegarish drip gilds my innards--that's my report from the salt mine of the senses tonight. You're supposed to be a ghost now, living on in shipwrecked tatters like a shredded sailboat sail; sans dirty linen, gritty winds, and the bane of shaving every day, which you hated. Once you began to lose your mind, you wisely refused to shave or be shaved. You put up surprisingly big fights, and I found myself glad to see you so vehemently defying your keepers, including me, as I chased you around with a red and white striped can of shaving cream. Not that you could run much by then. So. You've had a fortnight's silence. An autumnal lull. Sat out a break between quarters in the cosmic basketball game. Come back as a crawfish, a leek, a handful of gravel hens ingest to use as teeth, a fake preacher who can't control his wolfish streak. I don't care what you wear. But come back soon. Not seeking revenge or relief, to which you're mightily entitled, but to meet your new darkhaired niece and answer a few routine questions.     The Bear-Boy of Lithuania Girls, take my advice, marry an animal. A wooly one is most consoling. Find a fur man, born midwinter. Reared in the mountains. Fond of boxing. Make sure he has black rubbery lips, and a sticky sweet mouth. A winter sleeper. Pick one who likes to tussle, who clowns around the kitchen, juggles hot baked potatoes, gnaws playfully on a corner of your apron. Not one mocked by his lumbering instincts, or who's forever wrestling with himself, tainted with shame, itchy with chagrin, but a good-tempered beast who plunges in greedily, grinning and roaring. His backslapping manner makes him popular with the neighbors, till he digs up and eats their Dutch tulip bulbs. Then you see just how stuffy human beings can be. On Sundays his buddies come over to play watermelon football. When they finally get tired, they collapse on heaps of dried grass and leaves, scratching themselves elaborately, while I hand out big hunks of honeycomb. They've no problem swallowing dead bees stuck in the honey. A bear-boy likes to stretch out on the floor and be roughly brushed with a broom. Never tease him about his small tail, which is much like a chipmunk's. If you do, he'll withdraw to the hollow of some tree, as my husband has done whenever offended since he first left the broad-leafed woodlands to live in this city, which is so difficult for him. Let him be happy in his own way: filling the bathtub with huckleberries, or packing dark, earthwormy dirt under the sofa. Don't mention the clawmarks on the refrigerator. (You know he can't retract them.) Nothing pleases him more than a violent change in climate, especially if it snows while he's asleep and he wakes to find the landscape blanketed. Then his teeth chatter with delight. He stamps and paws the air for joy. Exuberance is a bear's inheritance. He likes northern light. Excuse me, please. His bellow summons me. Let me start again. True, his speech is shaggy music. But by such gruff instruction, I come to know love. It's difficult to hear the story of his forest years with dry eyes. He always snuffs damply at my hand before kissing it. My fingers tingle at the thought of that sensitive, mobile nose. You've no idea how long his tongue is. At night, I get into bed, pajama pockets full of walnuts. He rides me around the garden in the wheelbarrow now that I'm getting heavy with his cubs. I hope our sons will be much like their father, but not suffer so much discomfort wearing shoes.     The Naturalist's Wife He was a stricken puritan when we met, a bit of prude and a clod. I saw his snapshot in the family album, as a kid, grinning, the skeleton of a prehistoric horse sprawled at his feet. He had a condor egg in each hand, and he held them, even at age ten, as though they were the breasts of his beloved. Why this picture made me mad to have his hands on me is anybody's guess. He looked a bit like a newly hatched cuckoo, with his funny jutting tufts of hair. After he became famous, on his birthday each year, a Swiss rabbit fancier would send him a crate of rare hares. The first time he kissed me he prefaced the peck by wondering aloud: "Now, how many bees have visited this little flower?" I twisted the sprig of mistletoe he'd given me and whispered under my breath, "Far too few." I did resent some of the sights I was later privy to-- such as his sketches of a dead elephant's stomach contents. During the third or fourth year of our marriage a strange revolution took place, and for a while, the government of his tongue was overthrown. That was hard to bear. Our sixth-born son (the co-discoverer of oxygen and of a breed of green lizards who pose for photographs when the weather turns warm) journeyed far and wide, like his father, slept in fossil beds, adapted to dark caverns and practiced oratory at the seashore. But he wrote me each week, homesick for the whistle of my dented copper kettle and the reek of my heartsease tea. Who stands the chance of living the longest? The unhappy salamander pinched in the heron's big, tweezery beak is offended by the question, which I therefore withdraw. My husband willed his library to an untaught wildman from the woods. It included a volume of essays about dew, a monograph on what clings to the feet of migratory birds and the autobiography of a squid named William. My husband, fingers sticky with pinfeathers and speckled with ink stains, has been dead these ten years. When we are reunited, in heaven, or purgatory, or at some bird sanctuary, or on an overgrown riverbank (I really don't care where), I know he'll still be obsessed with finding out why different varieties of gooseberries vary in hairiness. Hand in hand, we'll perch on a low branch and watch a tree full of weasels hissing and showing their teeth.     Yom Kippur in Utah Come sit in the absolving shade of a plane tree and contemplate the forgiveness you crave. Lists of sins you committed during the past year are whispered back into existence. They sift into consciousness, surprised at all the attention they're getting, shy as mice and houseflies who find themselves canonized. You haven't done enough for anyone you love. You've neglected your parents. You spend eons sleeping. You're envious of everyone--your silent father, puttering around in the garage, assembling ships in bottles, his beard white as a christening gown. Even the squeaky front door makes you want to trade places: it opens and closes so easily. Now, out of nowhere, it's snowing. Broken white lines slant across your visual field. Sloppy, sleety blobs splat on shake roofs, streak the smoke-darkened brickwork of Victorian homes that rule this part of town, just south of the graveyard. Long, grassy and partly unfenced, the cemetery's arranged by faiths. Jewish section, Catholic area, the Christian hills--all with separate entrances. Each plot boasts its own address. Pink or dark marble stones decorated with roses, praying hands, crosses or stars (a young boy's marker is chiseled with dinosaurs) preserve curious names like Wilfred, Adeline, Barnett-- solid citizens who knew the virtue of eating three big home-cooked meals each day. These upright neighbors' titles belong on granite slabs, in pretty typefaces with lilting flourishes at the ends of letters. Be positive and philosophical when confronted with pain, they say. Sleep in Jesus. Sleep in belief. The Mormons here can convert you even after you've passed away. That's how much they care about your salvation. Did the past, that greased but creaky machine, hum along to a more complex rhyme scheme than ours? Were its griefs worthier, more ornate, better attended? Were our dead elders read to sleep more completely? Were they better versed--supplied with richer texts mourners felt embedded in as they sipped home-brewed oblivion at wakes? Or were our forebears' sufferings just as blunted, obscured by the billowing scrims of religion and tight-lipped denial, their spirits struck dumb, cinched in by belts, girdles and trusses? The snow downgrades to rain. It pinstripes the glittery windows. There's a bright line in the latest MRI of your brother's skull. Is that some kind of shining path too? He's on his way to the Cayman Islands to go diving. Fish hang in the clear water, festive as Christmas ornaments: crimson and gold, orange and lime green. Puffers, rockfish and rays wait as he struggles into his wet suit to enter their element. And what on earth are you doing in Utah, so far from your duty, where it's believed dead spinsters and stillborn infants wed in heaven? Here below, in the realms of honey and mud, steeples snag the sky. The air smells serious and holy as a felon or a church elder wearing Dad's brand of aftershave-- a bracing, South Sea island scent favored by that kind-eyed, grizzled man who sired you, who likes to eat sauerkraut with tiny meatballs, whom you love along unseeable frequencies as he wipes his mouth with a white napkin and urges you to confess everything.     The Story of Toasted Cheese     Toasted cheese hath no master. --a proverb Toasted cheese hath no master. Streams of priests running from pink bungalows faster and faster were seen reading The Fronds of God , prophesying disaster. Indoors, toddlers munched crumbs of ancient wall plaster. You slapped her for calling Dad a "majestic bastard"? At the mouth of a sacred cave, kneeling in gravel, he asked her. The ostrich race will take place in that picturesque cow pasture. Will you have the oysters Rockefeller now to begin your repast, sir? Her premonition consisted of "seeing" her dear sister romanced by a sandblaster. Monique loved the rough, comforting hum of that scruffy black cat's purr. The botanist finally recognized (tears filling her overworked eyes) a rare, blue, Chinese aster.     A Nautical Tale Her jailer and her tailor posted bail. But a sailor stole the mailer containing the ill-fated payment from the safe in the bondsman's trailer, tripping over a low railing around the trailer park's carp pond as he made his hasty escape. His shipmates always joked that the old salt had an ocean-soaked peach pit for brains, or maybe a caper, and that this short shrift upstairs (which untold cruel years at sea worsens rather than repairs) accounted for his twisted, driftwood-gray malaise as well as his famous lack of restraint. Lifting her skirts and her bail, he kidnapped the burglaress in question, leaving a trail of barnacle shells and tattered writs. On board, the crew, drunk and groping for their wits, heard her salivate under her gag, as the whaler breasted choppy waters. Finally he untied her, amidships, seized her by the hips and roughly kissed her peppery lips, while the cabin boy (also a kidnap victim), screamed repeatedly, "Y'all better call me Mister!" Weeks later, by the time they'd reached the island chain, the female thief was frailer, and those nail holes in the cabin boy's hands and feet had healed into typical blisters.     Loss The world cowers and draws away from you. Lisping rivers whisper watery rumors, like Your dad's in jail, but he'll be back for Christmas, armed to the teeth. A friend finds himself suffering unbearable facial pain. Another man you admire was warned by his team of MDs that any attempt at sex could cause a massive heart attack. The bird perched on this drainpipe gargles his song so rustily he seems to be a pip-squeak machine--feathers fake, gizzard full of tiny gears. You can still smell the brimstone from last night's refinery fire on the streets this morning. Sadness inhabits your every cell. It erupts from pores, your new perfume. The brave few who draw close to you are treated to a quick whiff: part eau de regret, part ruined brewery. Half the planet away, a volcano's spitting up rocks big as trucks, then vomiting columns of water from the lake that's been stuck down its throat since it was formed. Maybe you can relate to the volcano's pain. I'd like to erect a monument to all loves lost to me. Building materials would be blocks of lava, and things that start with the letter "G"-- gunnysacks, glassworms and gingersnaps, for instance, plus dozens of bottles of grappa Dad left moldering in the basement when he lit out for a crime spree. I'd also decorate my memorial with these green gems he hid behind the false wall in his closet, in that trunk covered with obscene graffiti. Oh, he'll never come home. Thank goodness it rains occasionally, or there'd be no hope of breeze, pardon, relief. Everything's dripping ... and a milliliter of comfort's wrung from each plink of water into more water, like coins jingling in the pockets of the bodiless, who no longer need them.     An Attempt at Solace Thin ribbons of fear snake bluely through you like a system of rivers. We need a cloudburst or soothing landscape fast, to still this panic. Maybe a field of dracaena, or a vast stand of sugar pines--generous, gum-yielding trees--to fill our minds with vegetable wonder and keep dread at bay. Each night before we sleep, grazing animals file soundlessly by us, with kind looks in their eyes. Their calm, accepting expressions crowd out darker images that buzz and swarm as if our pillowed heads were beehives. Even the monks I studied were in sore need of comfort. They considered themselves inmates, bit their sooty fingernails to the quick. I often caught them sobbing at dusk, terrified of each sunset's accompaniment, an adverse fate they heard oompah-ing up over the horizon like infernal tuba music. Everyone we love's under constant threat. A blood-smeared boat's anchored in the Gulf of Mexico, motor still running. The virus decimates our ranks unchecked. Its victims must choose between madness and blindness. The aged, whose natural heat begins to fail them, flail and rave, uncomforted. Physicians continue to nod off during surgeries. Flies zoom through sickrooms, loud as prop planes. It's not raining regular rain. These droplets are greasy, and they burn. All the frogs are long gone. Are we just paper dolls or pencil sketches to our maker, to be snipped apart or painted away at whim? We fell asleep last night in each other's arms. This morning we wake in a strangely decorated classroom. Sitting erect at uncomfortable desks, restless as wild guinea pigs, we see our would-be teacher swallow pill after pill made of dried, ground-up spiders.     Scorched Cinderella This sooty beauty can't yet shed light. But soon she'll exude a myopic glow even our cynical paperboy won't be immune to. Her little hands are cold as Saturn. She has the accusing eyes of some dying feline. Her unfettered mind grinds like a sawmill, or it tinkles like chandeliers breezes are fingering. She ignites ne'er-do-wells and solid citizens alike. She demanded we tattoo an axe and a skull on her pelvic girdle: guideposts for explorers hoping to plant their flags in her lost continent. Her hair's a forest of totem poles. Her feet, scentless orchids, cherish their seclusion in the twin greenhouses of her heavy corrective shoes. She dines on hawk wings, beets and unspeakable custards. How can any of us, daughters of our mother's disastrous first marriage, hope to land husbands with her around? We suffer by comparison with every tick of the clock. Some say that next to her we're like stray dogs who scavenge grass all winter, or quick lizards skittering along pantry shelves behind dusty pickle jars. We've locked our sister up, covered her with tiny cuts. She insists she likes her hair better since we singed it. She says people are whispering inside the air conditioner. It's getting harder to slap her awake every day to face the purer girl we're scouring her down to, but she's still worth a detour, if you happen to be passing through.