My Life as a Subject

By Meghan O'Rourke b. 1976 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
and sang the old ballads
sitting on the well edge
amongst your kinspeople
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 sound of owls. A bird fight.


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


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.


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.


When strangers massed at the borders,
the courtiers practiced   
subjection of the foreign. The court   
held a procession   
of twine, rope,
gold, knife, light, 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.


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


In the court at night, we debated
the skin of language,
questioned what might
one day be revealed inside:
a pink and soft 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.


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


And our queen, that hidden
self. What became
of her? Slid into the night
like a statue, and felt
around into shadows,
nothing to prove, all worldly
latitudes, knowing as a spider
in retreat. The web
her mind, and in it, the fly.


On Sundays, we flew kites   
to ensure our joy
was seen by all those who   
to threaten us. The thread
spooling out up 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.


Do I have anything else
to add? Only that
I obeyed my king, my
kind, I was not faithless.
Should I be punished
for that? It is true   
some of my pictures creak unhappily
through the spindle.
It is true one day they
came to my house. 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.

Source: Poetry (June 2008).


This poem originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

June 2008
 Meghan  O'Rourke


Poet, essayist, and memoirist Meghan O’Rourke was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1976.  She is a graduate of Yale University and holds an MFA in writing from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina.  From 2005-2010 O’Rourke was poetry co-editor for the Paris Review, and in 2000 she was a fiction editor for the New Yorker.  Since 2001 she has been a contributing writer for the online magazine Slate
O’Rourke’s books . . .

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SUBJECT Social Commentaries

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

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