My Life as a Subject, by Meghan O’Rourke

Because I was born in a kingdom,
there was a king. At times
the king was a despot; at other times,
not. Axes flashed in the road

at night, but if you closed your eyes
sitting on the well-edge
amongst your kinspeople
and sang the ballads
then the silver did not appear
to be broken.

Such were the circumstances.
They made a liar out of me.
Did they change my spirit?
Kith in the night.
The cry of owls. A bird fight.

II.

We also had a queen,
whetted by the moon. And
we her subjects,
softening in her sight.

III.

What one had
the other had to
have too. Soon
parrots bloomed
in every garden, and
every daughter
had a tuning fork
jeweled with emeralds.

IV.

Learning to hunt in the new empire,
the king invited his subjects
to send him their knives.
He tested these knives on oranges,
pomegranates, acorn squash,
soft birches, stillborns, prisoners
who had broken rules. He used
them on the teeth of traitors.

V.

When strangers massed at the border,
the courtiers practiced
subjection of the foreign. The court
held a procession
of twine, rope,
gold, knives, and
prostitutes with their vials of white
powder. Smoke coursed into the courtyard,
and we wrought hunger upon
the bodies of strangers. I am sure you
can imagine
it, really what need
is there for me to tell you.
You were a stranger once too, and I
brought rope.

VI.

Afterward, I
slept,
and let the dealers
come to me alone
with their jewels and
their powders.

VII.

At night, we debated
the skin of language,
questioned what might
be revealed inside:
a soft pink fruit,
a woman in a field…
Or a shadow, sticky and loose
as old jam. Our own
dialect was abstract,
we wished to understand
not how things were
but what spectacle we might
make from them.

VIII.

One day a merchant came to court
and brought moving pictures,
the emperor’s new delight.
He tacked dark cloth
to the windows and turned off
the lights, cranking the machine and the film
like a needle and thread,
making stories we could
insinuate our cold bodies
into and find warmth. Light;
dark. And the sliding images of courtiers
merrily balancing monkeys
on their heads, as if this
were an adequate story.

IX.

And our queen, that hidden
self. What became
of her? Slid into the night
like a statue, shivered
into shadows. Knowing as a spider
in retreat. The web
her mind, and in it, the fly.

X.

On Sundays, we flew kites
to ensure our joy
was seen by those who
threatened
to threaten us. The thread
spooling out high
in the purple sky
and silver-gelatin films being made,
sliding through the cranking machine
so that the barbarians could know
we made images of ourselves
coated in precious metal
and sent them away
indifferent to our wealth.

I miss the citrus
smell of spring
on the plaza filled
with young
and long-limbed kite flyers.

XI.

Do I have anything
to add? Only that
I obeyed my king, my
kind, I was not faithless.
Should I be punished
for that? It is true
the pictures creaking
through the spindle
cause me pain. I know
the powder we coated our fingers
with made us thirsty
and sometimes cruel. But I was born
with a spirit, like you.
I have woken, you see,
and I wish to be made new.