Bodies: Speculative poetry
edited by Catherynne M. Valente
Table of Contents
Editor’s Introduction • Catherynne M. Valente
At the Tip-Top Motel • Marie Vibbert
A Course in Magic • Caitlyn Paxson
Demetrius Yardley, Fire Nurse • Joshua Gage
Drinking the River • Alexandra Seidel
Elegy • Alexandra Seidel
Tupilak in Cartographer’s Ink • Joshua Gage
Two Body Problem • Marie Vibbert
Workplace Romance • Ken Poyner
At the Tip-Top Motel
At the Tip-Top Motel off the highway by the river,
A boy stuffs a rag in the overflow drain
And fills the tub to the very brim.
As he sinks in, his skin recognizes
How necessary this was; he can only breathe in water,
Only breathe while floating,
And the allowed depth is never enough.
He can float, just barely, if he stretches himself out.
He kicks off his stubby brown toes
And unfurls the delicate stuff from inside.
He lowers his head to feel his hair lift,
And imagines the tiled stall transformed to a vast room,
A deep pool with a narrow ceramic ledge.
Mermaids don’t need deck chairs.
The door is locked; he can’t (doesn’t have to) leave.
Maybe the steamy air is laced with a mad scientist’s concoction
That makes his flesh melt to the water,
Sands the bumps off of him, leaving him sleek as a fish.
Silver like the trout he caught once next to his sister.
When the mad scientist comes to try to make him do …
Well, whatever evil purpose he had for a water-breathing boy …
He’ll grab him and dive and dive until his shoulders rest
On the cold floor, and hug the bad man to his breast.
He rolls in the tub, arms tight to avoid the sides.
Eyes open on the strange world of flower-shaped skid-pads,
Their surfaces bubbling with alien life.
If he can hold his breath long enough, if he can stay like this,
Will he stay like this?
Buoyant and smooth and unboylike.
The water turns cold.
Reluctantly, he lets his body reclaim its heaviness.
The floor is delightfully splashy.
The carpet outside darkened in a wide fan.
His mother screams.
They have to pack up and leave in the small hours of the night
To avoid paying the damages caused by his breathing.
A Course in Magic
1. The Book
A book is sometimes a flirtation.
Listen as he rustles her pages:
They crinkle all against his fingers.
Each crinoline layer, each chapter
Holds the set-up, the prestige, the key to
Unlocking her hidden compartments.
She gives him a book.
He opens it.
2. The First Trick
A trick is sometimes an affirmation.
Listen as he asks: is this your card?
He flourishes with one hand, meanwhile
The other hand does its secret work.
He circumvents her false bottom,
But never tells what she kept inside.
How did he know where
She hid the card?
3. The Slow Reveal
A reveal is sometimes an invocation.
Listen as she appeals to God;
His fingers turn even atheists to prayer
As they conceal, reveal, unfurl.
It sounds a bit sensational,
But even when the final curtain falls,
She’ll ask to see her
Favourite trick again.
Demetrius Yardley, Fire Nurse
Nurses are nomads
between the tubes
that tunnel beneath
the city and the sanctuaries
of sleep, We dwell
in lands caliginous,
gas hoses, altimeters,
and the holocaust that holds
this city aloft
and its boulevards illuminated.
blind our eyes to the blaze
that singes our beards
and stinks our suits;
the sparks that scatter
to scorch our skin.
We are covered against
combustion, but the fire calls
to us, invites us
in to the inferno.
I’ve seen men stare,
then simply slip
through the furnace doors
and drop into the devouring
pyre that pulls
us all. Parson
sips brandy at the Archer
with Bagley, blustering
smoke that smolders
through the salon, smothering
the floor like fog.
They finance their empires
with mines and men,
but cannot imagine
the real fire, the faces
we feed in the furnace
that grow with gas
and coal, ghosts
who lost San
and succumbed to the gloom,
now summoned to steam
and push the propellers
stokers who just stopped
their shovels and stepped
away, these are the convalescents
we cure, who call
to us, urging us
to unite with them,
and no sleep or ale
will ease these echoes
that travel the tunnels,
terminal as breath.
Drinking the River
My body is stretched so very wide.
I could meet others in the dust and in the clouds
and never know that they were once like I
like a myth stretched thin and far,
spooled along the light of stars.
I once was more real than I am now:
corporeal, that which can touch
and can be touched in return, can feel the touch,
cellular, visceral; more real.
The myths thin out with me, and so do all the others
who are no more than light-reflecting motes;
the cadences may change, but
the rhythm is always the same—
in it we abandon the planets we knew, the words,
such a deed, and such a misdeed, all gone.
In this way we are all starriver drunk
and ground like seed
into the heart of every myth.
Bring out the knives
sharp as a ring, sharp as a lie turned liar's traitor,
cutting deep as hope;
hold me tight
and hold me forever
There was once a girl who ran
until her feet were roots;
she might have run forever,
free as wind beneath the swaying leaves,
but she looked back
Bring out the silks that
hold and have me captured,
the touch on my skin I love like no other,
the trace of a scent I cherish like spring;
I will hold sunlight in my hair
There was once a girl
who left death because she loved;
tell her love is a song: she already knows it.
tell her beating hearts share but one rhythm:
she already taps the beat. tell her
both truth and beauty are eternal,
and she will nod, solemn as a ghost;
ask her why the minstrel turned around to look back,
and she will be forever silent
Bring out the shadows
that know who I was and who you,
the shades that trace our steps in the autumn snow
and know them better than we ever did;
if it was all lie, then why did we not keep that secret?
There was once a queen
who devoured all her younger selves
like snakes devour uncracked eggs,
and when she knew that she had tasted
time forever lost, she lost herself,
would never walk again but crawl
Give me back the shards of moon I gave to you.
Hand them to me like shears that cut but once.
I will not try to put the moon back in the sky
but I will remember the taste of starlight,
the darkness I hold in the palm of my hand
Tupilak in Cartographer’s Ink
As she enters the parlor, she feels
blackened roses and anchored
regions, a place more precious
than the magenta fish which must
be her sexual desire, seized white
through murder. On the sterile walls,
women cover yellow
maps with ink-sharpened swords.
She is a sapphire, herself,
in a mysterious head whose fingernails
are blacker than any she’s visited.
Here, stuck into the tails
of scarlet cranes of all sizes,
paper-covered eyes hold
the compasses to pirate treasure.
Snakes wind around other oddities
of the rainbow, sphinxes larger
than a world of uncharted seas.
Two Body Problem
A planet wriggles
Between its parent stars;
Julia worries over
Teach. Do something else.”
His dream of stars
Within her career’s pull.
Why must she analyze
Of a physicist and a physician?
Her east-coast gravity well
Launch him into orbit
A family wriggles,
Between its parent stars;
Their one home drawn
Manhattan and Sirius.
Perhaps, he says,
He could do something else.
The Ebdorian at the end of the line
Is having an affair with the boy
From Toledo. The boy
Is barely nineteen.
She has worked canning protein, worked assembling
Sleep sets, worked packing crystal cookware,
Worked grooming Theoroze for market
On a dozen worlds; she has collected paychecks
For three hundred years; and seen
Production lines in both regular
And irregular galaxies.
This is as far as the boy has ever been
From home; this is as much
Responsibility as he has ever had.
He writes his parents
Three times a week.
I’ve missed them on productivity breaks.
I have imagined her six arms
Wrapped around the small of his back,
One of her legs planted
Firmly on the utilitarian tile floor, one
On the opposite wall,
And the last
Spearing the air like a shot
Taken at out-of-season game.
He is enamored with the moment.
He would lose his place on the line
If she did not have the experience
To time their encounters, get them both
Back on the production train before the foreman
Has cause to act on our common suspicions.
I am managing the Union Hall betting pool
On what the boy will do
Aligned with off-world tides,
A cockeyed planetary rotation,
And a species imperative as haunting
As our union dues—this Ebdorian
Puts off the ruggedly female
And turns for the next twelve-year cycle
To the testosterone-frenzied male.
You can place your bet on the depth
Of the visual,
Or the aural,
Or the physical
Predicament; or, for those who think
They know the boy,
They can bet
On whether it will make to him any difference at all.