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Hysteria: A Requiem


After the plague
            we put away our lamentation,
                                                             our children’s cradles,
                        and dance with all the required ecstasy.

The monks follow us with brooms, barefoot.
                        The doctors in the next room
                                                                       heal each other.

                        A woman in a mask leads the midwife
            by a leash through the rooms.
                                                             Behind her hood she warns,
                        A nation has ended, but the world continues,
                                                jubilant and unclean.

Outside, spring continues without us.

                                    We loved a god we didn’t believe in,              
                        and believed in a god we didn’t love,
                                                but neither let our children live.


Through cracks in the boarded windows, I see broken rocking horses in the streets. I hear nothing. Nothing. Not even the wind. I want to go through the houses and search for the living, but I am bound to the known. A sore rises on my scalp. I tell no one. The test of faith is not death, but fear.


            Dies Irae

            No one wants to remember
                                    how we found bodies in trees and left them
                        unburied in the sky.

On ruined carpets we wallow with pomegranates and sweet wine. 
            We want to forget the wayfarer we hung
                                    when he asked for food.         

                                                            The truffles and caviar are ours.
            And the figs.                The rosemary butter and ginger tea.
                        The killdeer singing in the wet grass.

We aren’t good with memories, but we are serious
                                    about pleasure.
            About arias and cinnamon.     
                                                             Harps and honey.


I met my love at the gallows where his father taught him to tie a noose. He lashed his wrists to mine. We tried to burn every cathedral in the country. Each time the stones bewildered us, so we traveled to the forest of the damned to baptize the trees. We wanted to become shadowless, like the sea, but the darkness that followed us shared our names.


The feral cats cry in estrous
                        followed by nurses with a cautious hope.

            They unearth the placentas under the stairs,
                                    but the kittens are born
                                                                         bathed in flame.
                        Their mothers eat their fevers
                                                as we intone our cold hallelujahs.

We want to believe laughter will return to us.
            We make our hearts
                                                hosts for immortal breath.
                                    Mortify our flesh,
                                                               we plead
                        to the whips in our hands.

The bread does not promise to transform us,
                        but the flaming sword above our heads
                                    threatens to forgive us.


I rode the sea as a child, learned the names of every monster that approached the ship, watched sharks feast on what remained of a whale while her calf circled. Sailors told me tales of animals who lived beyond the sun’s reach whose bodies manifested their own light.



We strip the midwife to prove her body is
            like ours. 
                                    At night we tie her to
beams in the ceiling.
                        Bent under her spirit’s arousal
                                    she accuses us
                                                even as we sever her tongue—

                        How can you say my prayers?

            How dare you say the dead child
                                                      in my room is your son?

                        This is my devotion to the returning dead.
            These are the ruins
                                    I mapped onto my body so I might always be lost.


I lived past the day I was told I would die. The earth didn’t rupture. The sky didn’t open. I am old enough now to know we only love what will die for us. I don’t want to be forgiven for the stories I told; I want to forget the bloodied yolk inside the broken egg. I am responsible to what I have witnessed. I have eaten the eyes of the enemy, and I am the enemy.

            Agnus Dei

We steal an hour from the future and burn
                        all the books so history begins with us.

            We write:
                                    In the beginning light begat shadow,
                        flowers begat fruit,
                                                     but stars were fatherless.
                        The wheat, radiant and unkind.

            We grow bored with paradise 
                        and take down the old commandments,
                                    but can’t write new ones.

We sell each other stories of happiness          
                                                   but the pages are blank.

                                    The starling starts to charge for its song,
                        its nest heavy with copper coins.


I know nothing of my father’s myths, but my mother’s parables are sewn into my skirt. She gave me tarnished idols and her long shadow. I come from a line of obedient women who want me to believe only the strong lie under the stones they’re given, but I am not buried under the cairn. I am smearing blood on the lintels even though the angel already passed over.

            Lux aeterna

Now, in the last world, we bury nightingales
                        beneath the floor.
            Trackers with their ears to the ground listen
                                    for angels approaching.

Where is the saint,                   mortally torn and wearing a hood of stars,
            bearing her own redemption—
                        a heart of thorns          and a stone book?

                        Rumors make women rush
                                    with tributes of roasted songbirds
                                                                                   to the fallen temples,
                                                but the epidemic continues.
                                                            We remain empty.

Before they left
                                    priests tied laws to our wrists that said:
            Grief is a slow animal
                                                bearing an imperfect hope.


I try to name this feeling. This terrible lightness others call peace. I felt it once, watching bare trees, waiting for wary deer to approach the salt. Nothing sang. Bears gave birth in their sleep, and the cubs crawled out to admire their indigo shadows in the snow.


            Libera me

The doctors name our malady—
                                    Hysteria: suffering of the womb.

We want to be healed,
                                      relieved of our burden, 
            so we remake our children       with clay, sing them
                        lullabies and offer our breasts
            with the hesitation of new brides.

            We let waves
                                    rock them past the shoals,
                                                set fire to our dresses
                                                                        to transform ourselves
                        into the ashes that pursue them across the sea.


I gave birth to a daughter, denied her three times, and when I found her at the ocean’s edge, I wrapped her in a winding sheet and offered her to the man who walked toward me on the water.  


Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (forthcoming from W. W. Norton), selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award.  Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Slate, Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere.  She was the 2008-09 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and currently teaches at Western Michigan University, where she is a doctoral associate and King/Chávez/Parks Fellow.