Blink, the tincture says, and be beautiful.
I close my eyes, open them to an explosion of stars—
the same stars medieval women saw, blinking belladonna
to be beautiful. A second blink of that devil’s berry,
and my pupils widen. I’m alone, on a deserted street
in a darkened town. Beyond the streetlight’s reach,
a movie house shines, the red on its lighted poster
turned to rust, the star-crossed lovers in the frame frozen
in embrace, that brace against the inevitable.
A man I seem to know steps from the dark,
wearing his solitary eye. Remember me? he says,
and slips an arm around me. So intimate—
and yet he holds his head exactly cocked so that I
cannot touch, I cannot see the empty orbit.
We walk—fields of flowers spread
on either side, tall dawn-bruised carillons of bells
ascending dull stalks. Behind
the broken screens of a dim hotel, a derelict
plays chess with a pint of peach brandy.
The man I seem to know sighs, pulls me close, leans
his chin against my forehead. You think me blind,
he says, but I see everything . . .
I’m hunkered, then, beneath a slant of ceiling,
on the top bunk of a desolate bed looking down,
legs naked and dangling. My heart throws off
its grave clothes, for at the foot of the bed stands my love,
my first, my broken vow, his back to me,
but still as if at any moment he’d be pleased to turn
and take my hand. He stands and gazes,
gazes, across a sea. Deep fog rolls to land.
When at last it clears, as if by the sweep of a hand,
a body floats into the shallows at his feet.
My hands rise to a shriek—
it’s my body, my hair, a floating fan.
I fall into a hell, land shivering on my knees
in the house of the dead—walls of stone, dark, damp,
and children tending corpse-strewn biers. Why am I here?
I say, and a woman like a man, medals gleaming
in the light from her torch, answers.
Do you want the job, or don’t you?
I do—I follow where she leads, up a pitched stone
staircase that grows narrower as we climb.
I stop. My children—what about my children?
The broad back moves away, unwavering.
You can’t take children there.
We climb, narrower, narrower, until
she steps aside and I pass through a membranous gap
in the wall to a mountaintop. A storm brews—
something roils in the clouds, tortuous, undulating.
On the steep of the slope, children pray, two boys and a girl,
in white robes. Their eyes turn to me as one
as a volley of lightning fires down, a serpent of light
swims through the air. The hair on my neck
electrifies as it nears. Blood in my ears, heart in my wrists,
cold fear coming to birth. Somehow, sheer will
or terror, I brace, I drive it back—the force
of thought. The sweep of its tail in retreat knocks a third
of the stars from the sky, tumbles a discordant note
through the music of the spheres.
Who can find a virtuous woman?
for her price is far above rubies . . .
She openeth her mouth with wisdom;
and in her tongue is the law of kindness.
Proverbs 31:10, 26; KJV
1. Delilah of Sorek
What demon whispers in his ear?
Tell me, and I will pray to it.
A dark familiar
drives him to my knees—sleep the only temple, and he
Something torments him.
it is his god. Can it be me? (I soak my veils
in myrrh, my nails
in wine. When he fails to meet my gaze,
I know he’s mine.)
If so, then justice reigns.
A woman might do anything to be touched
by a godly man—she might give
her soul. It is the god’s
hand on her.
2. Sarah, Wife of Abram
Wasn’t it enough?
The sidelong glances of men, the hush that fell
whenever I entered the circles of women? The barren
bear more than the fruitful
can tell—each infant on its mother’s
knee, as on a throne.
And what of Abram,
to whom these strangers make their wild
More than the simple need of men brought him to my door,
and yet each time, I rose as empty as I fell.
Even the slave girls of Canaan quicken
But with each new moon, the Egyptian smirks
and fawns beside the cooking pit.
Yahweh promises descendants like stars?
HA! Even that
which is added to Abraham’s name cries out
3. Rahab of Jericho
The King’s Guard are all business tonight.
The captain salutes me
with his spear, says, “Where are the spies who’ve come
Last night he was smooth as honey at the door.
His heavy cloak fell forgotten
to the floor, his unguarded face was grave.
(The king’s men whimper
in their sleep like any other.)
he won’t even speak my name.
The cur and his king think themselves equal
Let them flail their weapons at the Lord . . .
Egypt’s chariots now take fishes as whores.
The red sash hangs signal on the wall.
I tell them nothing.
What do I owe you, Jericho?
You made a harlot out of me.
4. Tamar, Widow of Er
When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot;
because she had covered her face.
And he turned unto her by the way, and said,
Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee.
Genesis 38:15-16, KJV
Am I a cypress
by a dwindling spring, a whisper
up the whirlwind? My error was an errant man.
For that, the world would bind
my loins, or burn them.
No second husband, then, Judah,
from among your sons?
No male heir—as law commands?
So be it.
I acquired nerve
in the house of the dead—
the wretched naked and blue; infants dank
on small couches.
A maelstrom rages inside my head, that cave
Look closely, Judah. Father.
A veil of seems.
At Daybreak, Ruth Still Smells the Barley Fields
So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, with her
… and they came to Beth-lehem in the beginning of barley harvest.
Ruth 1:22, KJV
—you who called yourself Mara, bitter,
over your lost husband, then both sons dead—
in the mornings when I walked to the barley fields,
the widows’ fields, I would remember my words
to you: Where you go, I will go—and where
you live, I will live, too. And I kept my word to you,
though I had to pick through barley chaff
until my fingers dropped sweat and blood,
my back seized with stooping.
Your kinsman Boaz was kind.
He ordered his workmen to leave me alone—
he knew the sort of thing that a sort of man
might do. Soon, I was gleaning
side-by-side with the harvesters. The men
pulled stalks heavy with grain from their own bundles
and placed them gently into my hand.
You were wise. When you counseled me to wash myself,
perfume myself, and lay myself at Boaz’s feet
as he slept, I did.
He spread his skirt over the two of us
and exchanged his sandal in the city gate
to call me bride.
Mother, Naomi, you’ve walked ahead on the path.
Light the olive lamp at dusk,
brew a pot of herbs. Watch for me.
I follow at my own pace.