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.
Copyright © 2010 by Meghan O'Rourke. Used by permission of the author.
Born in New York in 1976, Meghan O'Rourke's first book of poetry, Halflife, was a finalist for Britain's Forward First Book Prize
Date Published: 2010-01-01
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/my-life-subject