Home > Poetry > Ode to Syphilis
Published: Wed Apr 15 2020
Eva Lundsager, Were now like (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
AGNI 91 Politics Race Sexuality
Ode to Syphilis

Hiding its origin, this evil thing / sprawls over Europe.
     —Girolamo Fracastoro, Syphilis sive Morbus Gallicus (1530),
         translated by William Van Wyck

Oh Syphilis, noble shepherd,
you condemned a god
who carved your land

into troughs for steeds
that gorged and left
lesions in place of rivers.

Apollo spread a hundred
red suns across your body
and they still radiate

in my own skin, a universe
of stars left for me
to navigate. My rashes

are a summer of sunsets,
violet and warm to the touch
after I, too, took a lord’s name

in vain, replaced it with a man
inside my lips. Now, Syphilis,
whenever I swallow, a star

burns down my throat
like a wish, illuminates
my chest where bacteria

in my heart will replicate
if I let them, if I believe
it’s just about skin

and not the way
an entire body
can be colonized

into submission
so silently. Nothing
undoes that kind of damage,

like the chancrous white
flames sprawled over Europe
after Columbus returned,

acquired from the New World,
scientists claim—and if
that’s true, dear Syphilis,

bless you, holy prophet,
for warning us all
how much we carry,

for reminding me
how a man throttled
my neck and I prayed

he would expand
my pupils into night,
as if I would finally see

the darkness in myself,
every constellation
and myth I’ve devoured.

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Steven Sanchez is the author of Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications, 2018), chosen by Mark Doty for the Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award. A CantoMundo Fellow, Lambda Literary Fellow, and winner of the inaugural Federico García Lorca Poetry Prize for an emerging Latinx poet, he has published his poems in American Poetry Review, AGNI, The Missouri Review, Poet Lore, North American Review, and elsewhere. (updated 4/2020)

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