Sarah Crossland sets Catherine the Great on an ice slide, a contraption that provides an apt metaphor for the fluidity and ease with which these poems conjure their perfectly detailed little worlds, showing, for instance, “the queen, tugging her nose to ready it for the wind.” There is a similar grace in “Casting,” a poem that moves between juxtaposition of the child playing with her toy horses, a mother sorting “the medicine in the closet,” and a wider-lens awareness of the construction of stories: “Every character is given an epiphany: / the new king wakes in the middle / of the night, tossing off his sleep cap.” This poet’s imagination is so precise that instead of seeing “only the chasm between light and dark,” we too can now perceive “the continuous ladder that marries them.”
—Matthea Harvey, contest judge
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Adynata (An Elegy)
Tonight, after the hen has grown her teeth, I will sit at your feet
and rub the lint from your slippers. There are fourteen houses
in which you’re living now. The first is spun from cotton,
quilted potholders hanging from nails along the walls.
The second cottage of cinders, of shea and oatmeal.
And in the yard of the last, beardfish climb the poplar trees
with their little claws. I have seen you as a child among
the salt and its snarled blossoms. Older, we have picnicked
in the red snow, we have untangled one another’s hair. If
a dream is not a visitor, if all of your doorknobs and stairways
are inside of me, if I have only thought them, where is it
that you fold down the bedclothes? Where do you remove your
toast from the broiler, where is the counter with the waiting
plate? Here, a cucumber sinks in the same water that floats a stone
Be Very Afraid
The doorknob grew from the back of my neck
on my fourteenth birthday. There, at the highest landing
of my spine—its own brassy vertebra, turnable
as a girl in a circle skirt cut from chainmail.
Within the hour, the escutcheon plate
and lock alchemized beneath it. My mother
applied ointments, my father called
the ambulance. The doctors said surgery
would leave me without the ability to taste
the difference between a handful of thimbleberries
and a handful of thimbles. And I would see only
the chasm between light and dark, rather
than the continuous ladder that marries them.
A nurse turned my doorknob, hoping to open me
into a land of ice bridges, of cauliflower beds
brindling the earth like the stripes of horses.
But it was only heat and distance. We told them
never mind. Arcimboldo painted men and women
comprised of table fruit and flowers, I think
to show how we are always only a mirror
for other fleshes. An eye is just as vanishing
as the shadow of the kit fox on a lap of snow.
I remember watching The Fly as a child:
A man slowly loses the pieces of himself—tender
cartilage of the ear, an eyebrow like a mourning cloak
caterpillar without its milkweed to depuzzle.
I was afraid that this would happen to me,
that I would transform into a door and then a wall
with a door, and lose the girlish parts I’d only just
acquired. I cupped my breasts so they would stay
stitched. From the attic’s lucarne window, the point
of my house closest to the sky and its vapored
bandages, I watched as my parents carried
contraptions through the yard, for healing
and forgetting, with bars and grates and mouthpieces
in the shape of a small infinity. But nothing
worked. I drank lemon water from a thermos
cut from stone. The god who dwelled in the valley
spoke with the god who considered the space
behind every chimney his home. If Aristophanes
knew anything about bodies, then there will be a person
across the ten thousand highways, recording
the sound each wheel makes as it travels past.
The master key longing from the back of his neck,
its parts accounted for: collar, throating, pin, and bit.
spoken by Eleanor of Castile
The poison, they said, was still on my lips
even hours later—my philtrum opalled with it:
white, reflectant. I would have seized the halberd
from a fallen soldier—I would have wielded it—
my weight against the pike, axe-head pinking
in the sun. Husband is a word half of dwelling,
half of home—a person for inhabiting
completely. Each night he brought nude flowers
to my lap, he yanked the ribbons from my hair.
And when—forearm extended, leather vambrace
rent and spilling blood—he asked me
to step closer and for a kiss, I brought my hair
back with my hands—I tied it back—and knelt.
Catherine the Great Rides the Ice Slide
Descending from the clouds parked low in the sky, limned with filigree and iced at the even hours, its ride like the cold shot of a revolver into the snow. The queen has been tied into her heaviest clothes, for warmth as well as padding. Her cheeks licked with pinkness, her hands in their mutton gloves gripping the straw mat that carry her to the ground. Here she considers that she might lose her heart out her mouth; here she thanks her brother for questioning her bravery; here she asks the faraway stopping-sand to land her nicely. The sun pricks a few melting drops, then hides them again, and the queen, tugging her nose to ready it for the wind, lays the straw mat on the ice. What is holding it in place and what is watching her cast her arms out like light slanting from a lighthouse; her bones, which she arranges as a seat, as written upon as a book of wife-stories. The man with the weather mask pushes her, and the body is as convertible as a fist into a hand. Eyes closed with the body’s quickening. Cyclone and the muscles of the closed eyes tight as wood. Knees knot and unknot. It is all she can do to keep a face toward what is coming. At all force, at all leveling. The sand stops her feet, it stops her from what could be forever-falling. Her wicking skin. Her eyes open like a nest of birds.
What parents do not tell their children is that there are no bones
in toys. No hard secrets. Only air
that when pressed out smells of a foreign country.
This is November of an early year and already
I am braiding hair: synthetic manes the color of thistle
and steel, trussed with tinsel—slippery
as my tongue in my own mouth.
The horses’ names I know by symbols
stamped on their flanks. Pinwheel, Parasol,
Lickety-Split, Gusty—this is the catalogue
of my small human dominion.
I have them act out plays,
and at the end of the hall, outside
my doorway, my mother sorts the medicine in the closet,
bandages with tweezers, iodine from calamine—
talking to herself—
rubbing alcohol, cotton balls, Triaminic…
Every character is given an epiphany:
the new king wakes in the middle
of the night, tossing off his sleep cap,
and the scientist—in an orchard
cosseted with wind—receives the good pendragon apple
in his lap. Time divvies, as simple
as it sounds, it delivers us
moments. So what sort of chime or present
does it take to understand that others
can hear you speak? That you are a person capable
of making sounds with meaning.
My mother asks what I am doing.
Embarrassment canters its tight track around my cheeks.
So I invent an epidemic
of silence. Slowly the ponies begin to whisper,
gathering their voices behind them—
though only half-disguised, their monologues
now like a company of ghosts covered in white sheets.
Then finally quiet surrounding.
It has been years like this.
Tell me, tell me
there will be a time again
to announce our imagination,
whatever animals we are holding in our hands.