In my microreview & interview of Steven Sanchez’s To My Body (Glass Poetry Press), I focused primarily on the use of imagery throughout the collection to explore the presence of both the physical and experiential body in a poem. It is more than fitting, then, that this week’s poem, “Human Breath Is Eroding The Sistine Chapel,” takes the body metaphors and further unpacks them in an ekphrastic poem that adds new threads of myth to a familiar image.
The travel of this particular poem is where much of the image work is done. The title starts off by placing the image of Michelangelo’s painting in the reader’s mind. We are, like the speaker, considering the famous image and this fact about human breath and erosion. A few lines in, the poem shifts and imposes over this first image the image of the speaker’s hotel room ceiling, their meditation suddenly taking on a more intimate tone. This intimacy is complicated by the third shift of the poem as the speaker digs into memory. Here, the two imposed images so far in the poem are clouded, literally, by the frost breath of the memory.
These three moves present different takes on human breath: it can erode a painting on a ceiling; it can convey smoke in a hotel room; and it is what words are carried on in speech. In each take, breath leaves the human body to have an effect elsewhere. The nature of these effects is at times unmanageable, yet we continue to look, hoping to see something of ourselves in time.
Human Breath Is Eroding The Sistine Chapel – Steven Sanchez
Where else do words tarnish
paint and plaster like smoke
on wallpaper, remnants of strangers
I feel close to? The dark matter
of their lungs and mouths scours
the textured ceiling. I light up and lie
down on the motel bed, becoming
Michelangelo on my back, cigarette
stroking the air. I see the world
like I used to, making cold angels
on the white expanse of my backyard
where I watched winter enter
and leave my body, transforming
words into something invisible,
almost tangible, like Adam’s left
hand that will never reach God.
To My Body by Steven Sanchez can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.