My Life as a Subject

I.

Because I was born in a kingdom,
there was a king. At times
the king was a despot; at other times,
not. Axes flashed in the road

at night, but if you closed your eyes
sitting on the well-edge
amongst your kinspeople
and sang the ballads
then the silver did not appear
to be broken.  

Such were the circumstances.
They made a liar out of me. 
Did they change my spirit? 
Kith in the night. 
The cry of owls. A bird fight.


II. 

We also had a queen,
whetted by the moon. And
we her subjects,
softening in her sight.


III.

What one had 
the other had to
have too. Soon 
parrots bloomed
in every garden, and 
every daughter
had a tuning fork 
jeweled with emeralds.


IV.

Learning to hunt in the new empire,
the king invited his subjects
to send him their knives.
He tested these knives on oranges,
pomegranates, acorn squash,
soft birches, stillborns, prisoners
who had broken rules. He used
them on the teeth of traitors.


V.

When strangers massed at the border,
the courtiers practiced 
subjection of the foreign. The court 
held a procession 
of twine, rope,
gold, knives, and
prostitutes with their vials of white
powder. Smoke coursed into the courtyard,
and we wrought hunger upon
the bodies of strangers. I am sure you
can imagine
it, really what need 
is there for me to tell you.
You were a stranger once too, and I
brought rope.


VI.

Afterward, I 
slept,
and let the dealers 
come to me alone 
with their jewels and 
their powders.


VII.

At night, we debated
the skin of language,
questioned what might
be revealed inside:
a soft pink fruit,
a woman in a field…
Or a shadow, sticky and loose
as old jam. Our own 
dialect was abstract,
we wished to understand
not how things were
but what spectacle we might 
make from them.


VIII.

One day a merchant came to court 
and brought moving pictures, 
the emperor’s new delight. 
He tacked dark cloth 
to the windows and turned off
the lights, cranking the machine and the film
like a needle and thread,
making stories we could 
insinuate our cold bodies
into and find warmth. Light;
dark. And the sliding images of courtiers
merrily balancing monkeys
on their heads, as if this 
were an adequate story.


IX.

And our queen, that hidden
self. What became
of her? Slid into the night
like a statue, shivered
into shadows. Knowing as a spider
in retreat. The web
her mind, and in it, the fly.


X.

On Sundays, we flew kites 
to ensure our joy
was seen by those who 
threatened
to threaten us. The thread
spooling out high 
in the purple sky
and silver-gelatin films being made,
sliding through the cranking machine
so that the barbarians could know
we made images of ourselves
coated in precious metal
and sent them away
indifferent to our wealth.

I miss the citrus 
smell of spring
on the plaza filled
with young
and long-limbed kite flyers.


XI.

Do I have anything 
to add? Only that
I obeyed my king, my
kind, I was not faithless.
Should I be punished
for that? It is true 
the pictures creaking 
through the spindle
cause me pain. I know 
the powder we coated our fingers
with made us thirsty
and sometimes cruel. But I was born
with a spirit, like you.
I have woken, you see,
and I wish to be made new.

More by Meghan O'Rourke

Troy

We had a drink and got in bed.
That’s when the boat in my mouth set sail,
my fingers drifting in the shallows of your buzz cut.
And in the sound of your eye 
a skiff coasted—boarding it
I found all the bric-a-brac of your attic gloom,
the knives from that other island trip, 
the poison suckleroot lifted from God-knows-where. 
O, all your ill-begotten loot—and yes, somewhere,
the words you never actually spoke,
the woven rope tethering 
me to this rotting joint. Touch me,
and the boat and the city burn like whiskey
going down the throat. Or so it goes,
our love-wheedling myth, excessively baroque.

Ophelia to the Court

My shoes are unpolished, my words smudged.
I come to you undressed (the lord, he whispers
Smut; that man, he whispers such). I bend
My thoughts, I submit, but a bird 
Keeps flying from my mind, it slippers
My feet and sings—barren world, 
I have been a little minx in it, not at all
Domestic, not at all clean, not at all blinking
At my lies. First he thought he had a wife, then 
(of course) he thought he had a whore. All
I wanted (if I may speak for myself) was: more.
If only one of you had said, I hold 
Your craven breaking soul, I see the pieces,
I feel them in my hands, idle silver, idle gold...
You see I cannot speak without telling what I am.
I disobey the death you gave me, love.
If you must be, then be not with me.

My Aunts

Grew up on the Jersey Shore in the 1970s.
Always making margaritas in the kitchen,
always laughing and doing their hair up pretty,
sharing lipstick and shoes and new juice diets;
always splitting the bills to the last penny,
stealing each other’s clothes,
loving one another then turning and complaining
as soon as they walked out the door. Each one with her doe eyes,
each one younger than the last,
each older the next year, one year
further from their girlhoods of swimming
at Sandy Hook, doing jackknives off the diving board
after school, all of them
being loved by one boy and then another, 
all driving further from the local fair, further from Atlantic City.
They used to smoke in their cars,
rolling the windows down and letting their red nails
hang out, little stop lights:
Stop now, before the green 
comes to cover your long brown bodies.