On the Topic of Love

On the Topic of Love
by Theodora Goss

I was thinking about the topic of love, as in
what is it exactly? It’s not like the ocean,
or a tree, or a rock — these are things I understand.
Love, on the other hand,
is a cloud made of water vapor
that you can neither capture nor hold,
a butterfly’s flutter as it lands on a blossom,
the gold of a leaf before it falls and fades on the ground,
something ghostly, intangible.

But I think — correct me if I’m wrong —
that the ocean loves the shore, because it returns in waves,
motion after motion. That a tree loves the sky, because it reaches
branches and leaves upward with every movement,
and the sky in turn loves the trees as best it can,
with rain and sometimes lightning.
A butterfly loves the air, because it decorates
the currents and eddies with its purple wings — kings
are not robed more richly.
Autumn loves the leaves so much, it steals their color.
And the rocks, do they love? Is love a quality
one finds even in a pebble?
Is it that fundamental?

Perhaps gravity itself
is how the Earth loves us, holding
us close, like a mother holding the hand of her child.
When I feel that wild
longing — when I feel as though my heart has been struck
by lightning, I hold out my hand —
ghostly, vaporous, because after all we are only partly here,
haunting this world, less permanent than the rocks,
like a leaf falling from the tree, or a butterfly,
or a cloud floating against a backdrop of sky,
here for a moment and then gone.
I hold out my hand
and almost, almost manage
to touch yours.

(The image is Butterflies by Odilon Redon.)

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Prescription

Prescription
by Theodora Goss

Take a crabapple tree
in spring, white with blossoms.
Take it in the early morning,
while all the birds in the elms
are dropping their notes on the front porch,
and the white moths are still fluttering
against the windows. While the ancient house
is dreaming its wooden dreams.
It will smell like nothing else on Earth.

Take it with a glass of water.
Swallow it down: the blossoms and their scent,
the white moths casting shadows on the floor,
the memory of the moon as she turned her pocked face
toward you the night before, the dark night
that followed. The clear light
of morning. And the crabapple tree,
even if its branches stick in your throat.
Soon, not immediately, you will begin
to feel better.

(The image is Apple Trees in Flower by Ernest Quost.)

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Mirror, Mirror

Mirror, Mirror
by Theodora Goss

Each morning, standing barefoot on cold tiles,
I ask you, not who is the fairest in the land —
I’m neither that vain nor ambitious.

But am I as fair as I was
yesterday, or the day before yesterday,
all the yesterdays on which I was younger
than I am today. Those lines that Mother Time,
the indefatigable spider,
is spinning beneath my eyes — have they spread overnight?
Perhaps I should stop smiling so frequently.

Perhaps I should stop frowning, avoid the sun —
already it has painted a few brown spots
on my cheeks and forehead. Or sleep for a hundred years,
which is as effective, they say, as a facelift.

Each morning you say, yes, you are older now.
There are white hairs on either side of your forehead,
looking as though they had been touched by Frost,
whose fingers leave precisely such fine streaks
over the meadow grasses, the windowpanes.
Soon, you will become a winter landscape
crossed by tracks where hare and deer have passed
on their way into the darkness of the forest.
Soon, you will sprout mushrooms.

Wake up, wake up! you say.
You will sleep all too soon — now is the time
to live as though you were going to live forever,
as though winter never comes
and all the fairy tales
were true.

(The image is The Green Mirror by Guy Orlando Rose.)

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Lesson Learned from a Sidewalk

Lesson Learned from a Sidewalk
by Theodora Goss

If you’re not broken,
flowers can’t grow out of you.

(The image is The Sensitive Plant by Charles Robinson.)

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Girl, Wolf, Woods

Girl, Wolf, Woods
by Theodora Goss

There are days on which I am the girl in the woods
in my red cap, jaunty, with my basket, plentiful,
wearing my innocence like a placard.

There are days on which I am the wolf, slavering
for either seedcake or a grandmother,
on which I am a hunger waiting
to be fed, a need, a desire.

There are days on which I am the woods,
silent, impenetrable.

Let me wander from the path, gathering flowers,
for night comes all too soon.

Feed me, for I am starved.
I want wine and cakes and meat. I want
the girl in the red cap and neat
apron. I want to crunch her bones.
I want to lope through darkness.

Let me be still, let me grow and feel
sunlight on my arms, which are also branches.
Let me hear birdsong.

There was a girl with a red cap,
a chaperon as they called it in that region,
which was famed for lace-making.
She ventured into the woods. The sun
was shining, but it was cool under the trees.

There, she met a wolf who was hungry
not for herself, but for her pups,
born late in the season, whom she was nursing.
Give me wine, she said, so I may be strong,
give me seedcake, or I will gobble up
your grandmother, and then you.

The girl knelt and said, here is wine,
here is cake, here is meat, a cold chicken leg
wrapped in a napkin, packed in the basket
by my mother, who embroidered this apron
with a row of red hearts.
I was taking it to my grandmother,
who has rheumatism and cannot run far,
but would be tough anyway.
Come, eat. I will share it with you.

The branches above sighed
as the wind passed through them,
and farther down the path, in a cottage
surrounded by lavender and sage,
among which bees were gathering
nectar from the flowers,
her grandmother was snoring.

That is not how the story goes, you insist.
But that is how I prefer to tell it.

(The image is an illustration for “Little Red Riding Hood” by Honor Charlotte Appleton.)

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The Clever Serving-Maid

The Clever Serving-Maid
by Theodora Goss

Here are the things your mother did not give you:
a chest filled with linens for your marriage bed,
a casket of jewels to wear on your wedding day,
a handkerchief spotted with her own red blood,
a talking horse named Falada.

Here are the things she did: your life, of course,
a tendency to get in and out of trouble
since you were a scullion. And now here you are,
so grand, a lady’s maid, but you are thinking
you could be grander still. So you tell the princess
to put on your plain brown linen while you dress
yourself in her sky-blue silk. It suits you better
anyway. And then you get on Falada.

The prince doesn’t even noticed the substitution.
Why should he? You’ve been in service since you were twelve.
You can sound as articulate as a duchess,
or more so, the way the butler is somehow always
more impressive than the king.

But you have to shake your head when you look out the window
and see her in the courtyard — the princess is hopeless
at tending geese. She’d make a terrible queen.
If she can’t control a flock of geese, how can she
control a household, a diplomatic mission,
troops sent into battle? Queens have to know
these sorts of things, not just embroidery.

And look at the stable-boy pestering her! You would stick
your knife into him — then he’s stop being obnoxious!

You’re sad when Falada dies, which wasn’t your doing.
He was an old horse — what did anyone expect?
But the princess is inconsolable, cries all day,
her soft white hands are developing blisters, her nose
is getting freckled. All right you say, let’s end
this charade. I’m not the princess.

The problem is, the prince has already fallen
in love with you, but he has a weak chin and eyes
like gooseberries. So you decide there’s adventure
out there somewhere, countries you have not heard of,
seas that have not been sailed, another future
than either the one reserved for serving-maids
or princesses. As you walk through the castle gates
(the king is threatening to put you in a barrel
filled with nails and have you dragged through the streets
as punishment, the prince is begging you
to stay, the princess is looking confused, as always),
the head of Falada calls from above the gates,
“Where will you go, false maid?” You answer, “Anywhere
I please, and nowhere in particular.”

The air is cool, the way it usually is
after a night of rain, the birds cacophonous.
The road winds through the town, then into forest.
Where should you go? East, you decide, where ahead of you
the sun has risen and shines on the dusty road,
making it seem, just for a moment, golden.

(The image is by Hermann Vogel.)

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The Gray Lands

The Gray Lands
by Theodora Goss

There are days when my heart is sick and my head is aching,
days when I just can’t go on anymore,
when rain comes down and soaks the autumn garden,
and wind blows in the door.

Then I pack my bags for a journey — pajamas, toothbrush,
sensible shoes — and I catch the morning train,
closing the gate behind me and leaving my house
to the relentless rain.

When I arrive at the tiny village station,
the pony trap will be waiting to take me home
along a road between two lines of birches
that have never been bent by storm.

There, in an attic bedroom, I will sleep
as dreamlessly as I slept when just a child,
then take a walk over the high green foothills
left unmown and wild.

There, my heart will feel what it was meant for —
the joy that precedes and sometimes follows pain.
I will remember why I must eventually
return to the world again.

But meanwhile there will be a friendly kitchen,
a cat that wants to curl into my lap,
a kettle singing to the spinning wheel,
tea in a porcelain cup.

Meanwhile I will find peace in my native country,
the strange and distant Gray Lands where I was born,
that you cannot reach unless you have a passport
and look a bit forlorn.

If you come, I will meet you at the station
and bring you back to Mother Night’s abode,
pointing out the poppies and cornflowers blooming
along the winding road.

(The image is Poppy Field, Argenteuil by Claude Monet.)

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