Steve Gehrke

Rousseau at the Giant Burger

Crystal Dialogue 12 by Lava Ghayas

So we’re splitting a patty-melt
with a side of the fry-cook’s sadness,
and you can really taste the melancholy
scorched into the onions, the thousand
lonely islands of the dressing,
and I’m getting a little weepy,
so Jean-Jacque waves his half-burger
through the air, and it looks
like decorated meat, like he’s eating
a disguise, and he says to me,
you want to know where your happiness
has gone? It’s bricked into the sidewalks,
man, it’s lodged in every parking meter’s
throat, it’s what’s powering these lights,
it’s stirred into the entire city, it’s what’s
paying the bills, it’s incorporated now,
they take it and sell it back to you
at WalMart, it’s in this burger, in its need
to be giant, it’s laminated into the menus.
And I’m looking through the latticework
of the basket, really looking at the ketchup
flickering like neon, and it’s one of those
moments that feels like the world almost
isn’t there. Even hunger’s half imaginary,
he says. Think about that: half of this burger
is feeding something that isn’t even real.
I’d like to see just once beyond the glaze
of my desires. I’d like to find some small
way to be satisfied. Man is born free, he says,
but everywhere he’s getting screwed
on the waffle fries. Can’t you hear the combines
grinding through the rye bread? Can’t you feel
the loneliness of objects we’ve all come
to live inside? Jean Jacque gets up and walks
to the window, and we stare out at the ghosts
rising up from the sewer grates, at the jackhammers
opening the archeology of streets. I can sense
my happiness out there, just beyond my reach,
like a story I knew in childhood but could
never quite repeat. I’d like to slide a stick
between the gears of the city. I’d like to make
the machine stop. But already I feel a counter-
force telling me that this might be the world
I hate but it’s also the world I can’t not live inside.
Jean Jacque looks out through my reflection,
and tells me that the one way to begin is to touch
the flame to everything, to body, spirit, reason,
God and the external world, to follow the wick
of doubt that runs straight down through
the center of existence. And I do, I try, but then the cash
register sings, and the scent of something sizzling
hits the air, and I touch my grease varnished fingers
to his evaporating face, and set my book aside,
and turn back to a world that I must and can’t abide.


About the writer:
Steve Gehrke has published three books of poetry, most recently Michelangelo’s Seizure, which was selected for the National Poetry Series. His awards include an NEA, a Pushcart, and a Lannan Literary Redidency. He teaches at the University of Nevada-Reno.

Image: Crystal Dialogue 12 by Lava Ghayas. Acrylic on canvas. 36 x 48 inches. By 2020. By permission.