The Synthetic A Priori

By Kathleen Graber Kathleen Graber

     What objects may be in themselves, and apart from all     
     this receptivity of our sensibility, remains completely    
     unknown to us. We know nothing but our mode of     
     perceiving them. . . . With this alone have we     
     any concern.
     —Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

At a church rummage sale, I study the perfection of shadows
in a painting by Caravaggio, although what I hold
is only a small print of Christ—its frame broken—dining
at Emmaus with three of the Apostles. And because the table
is dramatically, if not unbelievably, lit, the bowls & pitcher
& loaves send their dark crescents onto the immaculate
white cloth. When the Savior raises his hand to offer a blessing,
its shade deepens further his crimson smock. Tenebrosus:
that rich, convincing darkness. As though the master understood
that the obscured world only seems to us somehow
even more familiar, as though our sense of our own unknowing
had at last been made visible—even if what we do not know
cannot itself be seen. The future’s drape, the carnival fortunetellers
of my childhood might have called it, but also the now’s,
displayed as it is—so many unmatched cups & saucers, old coats
& wicker baskets—all around us. At a party last week,
someone said verisimilitude. We were huddled on a tiny porch.
It was the first cool night & the wine had no conclusion.
The talk turned quickly to shepherds & the pastoral & then,
to opera, before someone recalled a horror film he’d watched
late one night with his brother. In black & white vignettes,
an evil tree stump possessed by the spirit of an executed prince
hunts the scheming tribal elders who have destroyed him.
A former pro wrestler in a costume of wire & rubber bark
& wearing a permanent scowl lumbers after vengeance
in the confusion & fear of 1957 on a half-dozen root-legs,
driving his victims into quicksand or toppling himself over
upon him. Though here the point is the teller’s small brother
& the boy’s allegiance, even in a state of suspended disbelief,
to what we call sense. How, he wanted to know, suddenly
unusually earnest, did the tree manage to get itself up again?
Yesterday I spoke to a friend who is despairing: back home,
waiting tables, he’s dating a woman whose marriage has only
just come to an end. When he wakes, he discovers he does not
recognize himself. One afternoon, walking home from school,
I hit my best friend in the face with a book. It may well be
that she hit me. Thin pages flew out into the street. More punches
were thrown & I came away bruised. In that book, a novel
by Emily Brontë, the land is violent & unjust & we are violent
& unjust upon it. Even worse, our greatest passions
change nothing at all. Before one of us hit the other,
there must have been a cause, but I can’t recall it, which makes it
seem nonlinear now, &, thus, apocryphal, both impossible
& impossibly real. I failed, though I tried, to offer comfort.
It’s not that our lives don’t resemble our lives. I’ve been alone
so often lately I sometimes catch myself watching myself—
breathing in the fresh spears of rosemary or admiring the shallots,
peeling their translucent wrappers away, centering one on the board,
making the first careful cut, lifting the purple halves.
Before stories, we were too busy for stories, too busy
hunting & suffering to invent the tales of our own
resurrections. Caught out in the kitchen’s brightness last night,
the handle of the skillet cast its simple, perfected form
across the stove—pierced, like the eye of the needle, so that
it can be hung from a hook, as pans, presumably, have always been.
Outside the wind picked up. Thunder. The dog trotted off,
hid her head beneath the chair. But today: a charity sale
at Trinity Chapel & sun on the tar of the buckled walks.
In the cracks, beads of water spin into light. Tell yourself
it’s simple: this is where it’s been heading all along. Tell yourself
something you have no faith in has already begun to occur.

Kathleen Graber, “The Synthetic A Priori” from The Eternal City. Copyright © 2010 by Kathleen Graber. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

Source: The Eternal City (Princeton University Press, 2010)

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Poet Kathleen Graber

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects Religion, Christianity, Arts & Sciences, Painting & Sculpture, Social Commentaries, History & Politics

Poetic Terms Free Verse


Poet Kathleen Graber grew up in Wildwood, New Jersey, the daughter of small business owners who ran an arcade on the Wildwood boardwalk. She earned a BA in philosophy at New York University, and in 1994, after years of teaching high school English, Graber was inspired while leading a class field trip to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival to begin writing poems. She subsequently earned an MFA at New York University.
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Poems by Kathleen Graber

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SUBJECT Religion, Christianity, Arts & Sciences, Painting & Sculpture, Social Commentaries, History & Politics

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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