Renate Wood's "Helen" was published in Issue 3 of the Marlboro Review



When he first came, I didn't run
with the screaming maids, I dropped
my needle and then my husband's shirt
in the orchard of olives where I
had been waiting. On his boat at first
I didn't speak. I don't speak well;
my tongue is a root anchored in stone.
He thought he took me then
on the furs under his cedar deck, but I
wanted to be taken, not because his limbs
were handsome like a god's, but because
to be desired makes beauty what it is,
not useful, but complete. What would I have been
without a city burning, a girl under a tree
sewing her husband's shirt? I wanted
to know desire, its singe, but all I knew then
was the desire to be wanted, as if there were
no man I could love, only the story of the self
burning within its broken walls:
a queen surrounded by her ring of maids;
the hero lunging through the gate; woman is woman
by spending her maidenhood.
Let the city fall. Tell them the ring of truth
is the ring of beauty: one takes down the walls,
the other lights up what vanishes.


After sunrise, for years, I would climb up
the parapet and watch the spectacle.
What else was there to do, while my new
husband polished his armor for the next round.
Shields gleamed on the plain
like plates stacked upright in a rack.
The gods took their positions on distant peaks

or hidden in the crowds--not that I
could see them, but I knew, being a pawn myself
in their cruel games. They can't die,
so they're fascinated to watch us.
Death is a miracle to them, they do not
tire of watching it over and over again:
that utter stillness, that refusal to ever wake
again, the release of the limbs, the wide open
stare that sees nothing; the wide open mouth
that says nothing. They cannot get
enough of this nothing. They cannot touch it,
like a hole in the fine quilt of their designs.
Everything is something, they argue, how
can it be less? Nights I stand by the mirror
and open my braids. I shake out my hair
and watch the ashes fall from it like gnats,
clouds of them sinking to the ground:
dust from the funeral pyres, skin and flesh
dissolved into black flour.


I didn't get to die. They spare someone
to do the mourning, to regret, to age.
One day instead of dimples I found lines,
then hair turned silver. Widowed,
I heard their sneers above me in the wind.
The body moves inside itself to tend
what never bloomed, seeds that fell into the cracks.
Even the flower of sex moves deeper
between the ruined walls, its roots so keen
they reach a well beyond the crumbling gate.
And there he stood, the one who had been waiting.
In mourning everything is simple: together
you enter a city without walls,
lament in every house, each door a mouth
telling what has been lost, on each stoop a figure
stretching out empty arms until emptiness and emptiness
meet in a ring, of arms, of words
passed patiently around small cooking fires.

Renate Wood's collection of poems, Raised Underground, was published by Carnegie Mellon in 1991. The recipient of a grant from the Colorado Council on the Arts and of the Emily Clark Balch Prize from The Virginia Quarterly Review, she teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and is presently in the process of completing a second book, tentatively called The Patience of Ice.

Copyright ©1997 Renate Wood. All rights reserved.

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