Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
for Stephanie Shaw
PART ONE: THE DANGERS OF DRIVING
Just the other day this poem started growing, or maybe it was this morning, I was going to work and saw a cardinal, bold in the last browns of winter — a cardinal, I thought, how red, how right, I will write and tell her that I thought of her, that I saw something dashing in the deadness and it reminded me of her, how her mouth leaves a lasting impression, like Nabokov, like a bright scar on the brain, how I always think of her in a red coat, with a red mouth, wearing turquoise Italian heels, carrying a yellow ukulele, I will tell her that she has a cardinal where her heart should be, beating its wings on the first day of spring, how marigolds grow from the thickets of her hair, how in the midst of imagining this poem, I almost hit five lady joggers with my car, smearing them clear into the pavement, how swerving, I resolved to tell her this too, the fragility of flesh, the uneasy blue of our sheltered veins, the anxiety of poetry, those barely missed manslaughters becoming nearly voluntary: how dared they interrupt my composing?
PART TWO: ALL HER WOMEN ARE QUEENS
I can never write enough poems for women, my dark-eyed women who demand barter for their tremendous dissolving attentions, who, after a certain paucity of poetry, a given dearth of verse, a slim reprieve that seems like loneliness, begin to imagine I have somehow forgotten the silver on their knuckles, the silver of their bones, the gold horn on its gold chain nestled in the hollow of their throats, the way they sit on a stool — on a stage — in a storefront — dim-lit, all legs, telling stories of Paris, of tornadoes, of giving birth to dragons.
When I write poems for men, they listen quietly, half-smiling, never knowing where to look. They rarely text a thank you, or email back their dearest lines (my men don’t know what to do with me or my rhymes), they stuff us in sock drawers, double us as bookmarks, read us only once; I think we make them shy. But my women understand, hang my words like banners on their walls, call their husbands in to read the choicest parts, or, if they must conceal them, from discretion, it is in secret boxes set aside for such a purpose, high up in a cupboard with a custom lock, out of sight of children far too young to understand the ardor of an outside heart.
You stand on a stage — in a school — in your overalls — instructing your women how to strut like Stars of Morning, how to talk with full voices, how to cut like guillotines, you set us against a backdrop devised to emphasize our silhouettes, lead us by the hand to stand on oaken tables rich enough to bear our royal load, then, when we are ready, when our clicking heels, our frills and ruffs and sweeping trains have obtained grace enough to incite fanfare, ignite rebellion, only then do you bring out your men again, whip them to a frenzy at our feet, leaping like lords, grinning like fiends, and one by one, each by each, reach out and teach them what it is to touch a queen.
My men could use your lessons, your choke-chain of pearls, your fondling, your pawing, your heaving and hauling, your razor remonstrations, the choreography of a caress. Advise them, these men who turn their faces from my face, that though a woman is a tiger, with permission you might touch her; her claws are retractable, her breath is sweet, the nape of her neck is sacred and if she bids you take it, you must take it, moving into her like a saint moves into a bonfire. Know that the wine you serve her must be pale and chilled, the bread broken by hand, the sauce a-swim in burgundy, that the book you open for her must mark a very particular passage, that the only proper response to the poems she writes you is a kiss.
PART THREE: THE GHOST IN YOUR BASEMENT
She keeps a space for me, she writes, between washing machine and work desk — or on hot nights, out on the back porch with her neurotic cat.
I tell her I want to grow like mold in her basement, pervade her walls, leave my smell in her clean clothes, until her teenage twins glance up from their iPods to ask, “What’s that? What’s that?”
Just me, I’ll say, seeding my dandelion fluff into their young man haircuts. Just me, remember? You’ve known me forever.
All the Time Lords of television can’t teach us how to live so double-hearted.
How to keep a bead on a target long departed.
How the bullet from the poet to the beloved must first pass through herself.