Published by Dennis Gould
On my table is a mutton tail,
a bronze knife with wolf handle, jug of khoumis,
a translucent yak horn bowl.
My six horses lie near, their coats still
that chestnut sheen. They face east
in their gilt saddles with felt cushions
stuffed with stag-hair,
bridles covered with gold leaf.
My coffin is carved from a single larch log
and curves like a cradle. Four copper nails
seal it shut, and on the sides, leather reindeer fly.
Open my lid to a block of milky white ice.
Dismayed my cocoon is opaque,
your pace slackens.
Melt me. Heat buckets with blowtorches to pour
boiling water into my casket,
cup by careful cup,
until the scent of coriander is released.
At night you dream of gouged eyes,
the sockets stuffed with fur.
Each day you stand in freezing water
as the smell of wet wool gets stronger
and you glimpse gold flecks in the ice.
Your arms move as if in trance
as I emerge from my two-thousand-year
curled on my left side,
my cheek nestled against the pillow.
Only patches of my face remain.
My hair has been shaved, a hole cut in my skull
to insert incense and pine cones
instead of a brain,
the gash sewn with sinew.
I am alone in my Tree of Life headdress
on its larch frame.
Tien Shan snow leopards, gold birds, a griffin,
perch on its branches.
A quiver and bow hang from the apex.
Pull back the marten fur blanket to view my necklace
of carved camels.
Lift the blouse from my shoulder to find flesh
tattooed a deep midnight blue -
a frieze of deer-horses with blossoming horns.
My hands are intact,
the thumbs dyed with swirling indigo antlers that break into flower
when you touch them.
The curves of my breasts are soft
as the day I was buried,
my skin yellow from tannins.
Behind my bent knees a red pouch
holds my brass mirror, horsehair brush, iron eye-pencil.
You trace long incisions in my back, belly and limbs
where my organs and muscles were removed,
peat, bark and sedge packed in their place.
That early spring, when I died young on the Pasture of Heaven
I was wearing this crimson blouse of wild silk,
this thick wool and camel hair skirt,
white felt stockings, a belt,
these still supple thigh-high riding boots to protect my skin
from chaffing against the saddle -
all made it
through the centuries unscathed.
I was preserved until the ground thawed enough
to bury me in the Altai, high up
where only ibex climb and eagles nest
so I could reach the afterlife
on the backs of my horses.
I am displayed in this museum, my clothes
and sacred ornaments on mannequins behind glass,
my body naked.
Rivers climb back to the ceiling where they belong
and a fox enters a woman's body, sliding
between her ribs, unable to keep a secret, He speaks
in a different voice from hers. Hunger, he says,
comes to the Portrait House capable of anything,
not just eating, That's no secret.
High above the Portrait House
the sky dozes between love and fornication.
Only the stars, those alumni,
care about me, he said. I am not a fox, he said.
I am a woman, just breathing and feeling sad.
In the Portrait House we had an endless year
that ended. He creaked efficiently out of the door
in his best uniform, saying, I am not a fox.
Yes, it was time to throw out the photographs
of the loveless prince and princess by the palace gates
crowned with make-believe snow. It was time
to eat a gargantuan meal and then sleep
for two or three days, at least.
Ah you are right. It is only a house, a box of shadows.
It is only me folding my arms
in the sparkle of twilight. It is only me
counting my children and beasts. It is only me
in the apple wood when all turns blue and windswept at dusk
with my favourite child singing to her ghost-ponies
high in the branches.
In the Portrait House every wall carries its fair share
of painted or photographed faces; burning lips and all sorts of eyes,
brows and chins. And when in autumn a wind that breaks things
dives through the corridors and the gazing rooms, the faces
frown with such eavesdropping tenderness. They watch us blindly,
growing more and more like foxes. They know
we are too stupid to be bribed. And so a little ghost-sadness
comes into the house, driving us away.
Like any other Adam and Eve, we run weeping
from the forbidden place, everything weeps with us,
tree, cloud, star, lion, river, sun. Every Angel
weeps, and God, he weeps also. But the portraits laugh,
and that little ghost-sadness cries out, smiling foxily,
don't you want these seven kisses? Come back! Oh please!
Outside the Portrait House is a black world and black stars,
black seas and black moons. That is where we must go.
You draw back in fear. Tears run down your face. Why?
You are not a visionary, are you?
I want to be you. Who are you?
In another life I was a man without joy
who lived a wild life.
Since then there have been streets and streets
of silence and rain and fox-voices.
But in this life I am just sifting a little bastard saffron
into a milk pudding
while you come to the table capable of eating anything,
complaining of your loneliness,
saying that women are no better than horses,
that this house has always felt sad.
Silver bells painted on my cheeks
so Mother could always find me,
my hair cut, woven into hers.
I polished the obsidian floor.
The sweetness at the centre
belonged to Tezcatlipoca –
Aztec Smoking-Mirror god.
Mother's memories rose
and sank into the burnished tiles.
Sometimes a vision serpent swayed
and a jaguar reared from its jaws.
Jimson weed takes away terror,
but at dawn before Mother woke,
I obediently dusted the dresser –
drawers full of stingray spines,
swordfish beaks, and a blade
called the Perforator
"for piercing tongues of daughters who talk".