Red Red Red
Sent from the breakfast room on a Sphinx' errand, I became
not childlike, as charged,
but windowseat nestling, small bird roosted in red moreen.
Outside the glass, sea of slick grass and storm-stripped shrubbery,
the lowering November light like a chilblain;
inside, Bewick hatched in my lap. I was feathered and sistered
among the pale fjord-birds, at home
on islands of rock in the midst of shocked ocean, the battery of waves—
the sea teaching the ghostly birds nothing
but how to be more like themselves: each storm-beat bird still bird.
Enter cousin John, gorged, dinge-skinned Caligula
looking for something to smash that would satisfy by staying so
and finding my feather-light frame like a constant cough,
my white face a bull’s-eye midst the scarlet curtains.
These were my choices: to be hit and break,
or to be hit.
What does the pugilist teach the battered punching bag,
the archer or rifleman the target’s straw-stuffed shadow?
How to snap back to center after the blow.
How to take the loosed dart like swallowing—
Launch my own kin at me: Bewick's leaves flapping like wings,
the blunt edge of the binding cruel as beak or talons,
cruel as a night closed in the Iron Maiden room, walls grisly
with velvet burnout and the house's terrorizing, spike-bled ghosts.
The next time your hands fall on me, I will bend to brute will,
the next time, I will be obedient
the next time, but not before
you see me felled, bloodied and still Jane,
the next time, know your hands fall not on me
but a whole flock of wildness, a wet-winged avian legion,
my voice like a cold wind screaming around the haunted rocks,
calling what's outside in:
come, rat, mad cat, bad animal,
come unfettered thing, come small bird to fly fly,
reveal the frail gray thing to be red-pinioned,
my blood sprayed indelibly on the page in the shape of a wing.
Epithalamium: August 24th, Herculaneum
We go to the boats.
Each dark bay along the beach
is a brick-lipped mouth cut
into the cliff side,
the boats like teeth.
All day the streets shook and groaned,
and a towering stone pine rose from the mountain.
Like creatures stunned by sound after a thousand-year silence,
we went still and listened to the rain
of pumice hissing down tiled roofs.
Now we go to the boats. The muffled slap of our feet
on ash-powdered cobbles and the ragged way we gasp
the charred air through damp wool
loud in our ears.
We knew only the sweetness of honey.
We had beautiful teeth.
In two thousand years, they will gleam
up through wet black ash as a woman
with a soft brush unearths us.
Our bones will be our names:
I will be slave, what's left of me ridged
by fevers, starvation. Beatings
and the warping tendon-strain of labor.
The one I lie with will be centurion or senator. He was tall
and his bones sing
a litany of plenty.
The beaten metal clasp sunk in mud
at his shoulder—fibula—says he died
wrapped in fine boiled wool.
What our bones do not say: I did, too.
He flung his cloak around me and I breathed
through the fabric as we ran
to the boats.
But when we stumbled onto the beach the bays gaped
and howled, housed only darkness
and cut ropes.
Far out, the waves tossed spit mouthfuls of teeth:
all those who fled first, their boats pitching,
filling slowly with ash.
We knew no one was coming back for us.
There is nothing else to prove
what we were to each other, huddled in those bays.
The bones say he might have owned me, might have
brought a hand down hard enough
for my teeth to be knocked loose
by a sigil ring.
Or, it might have been like this: we never met
before our flight to the boats,
before death came for us on a suffocating wave of mud,
but when my eyes wept blood, he raised a hand
to my face and wiped it away.
The gold chill of his rings on my skin
was the last thing I felt.
Cataclysm is a lens, its focus
a luxury soft as ash:
Who walks the cobbled sidewalk with you?
The outline of your body is a hole punched
in the August air thick as hot mud,
no different from the hollows
our vaporized remains left in the pyroclastic flow.
The ground is still. The day flawless and blue.
But if the bricks buckled beneath your feet, if the sky
rained a hail of teeth, could you
reach for him?
If your mouth gulped for air like a hooked fish,
what words would escape your lips?
To the boats. To the boats.