Catherynne M. Valente

(5 May 1979 / Seattle, Washington)

The Descent of the Corn-Queen of the Midwest

Hades is a place I know in Ohio,
at the bottom of a long, black stair
winding down I-76 from Pennsylvania,
winding down the weeds
through the September damp
and that old tangled root system
of asphalt and asphodel,
to the ash-fields,
clotted with fallen acorns
like rain puddled in fibrous pools.

Dead hands dice onions there
on an old oak cutting board,
dead hands spackled by iron rings,
by jewels, red and dark,
set into the skin like liver-spots,
and all these white curls are piled before me,
old fingernails cairn-stacked.

It is quiet in the Underworld, and every night
stews and cakes and wine appear on cedar tables,
served by slender hands that promise
no harm, no harm
could ever come from eating these rich and
shining things.
Someone has tracked crocus petals all through the house,
a ruin of purple —
and I cannot recall if I am allowed,
in this place,
to walk on it.

Don’t you know these are your fruits?
Don’t you know these are your flowers?

The pomegranates are not ripe yet,
but Ascalaphus talks shop with me
at the Farmer’s Market,
shows me Empress plums,
papaya and mint sprigs,
a nice Japanese pear tree of his own breed,
heavy with colorless fruit.
The grafting process is difficult,
like wedding flesh to flesh,
and there is so much blood.

Don’t you know these are your fruits?
Don’t you know these are your flowers?

If they notice the wheat clinging to my heels,
if they are embarrassed by shreds of California
hanging from my skin like prayer flags,
they say nothing. The dead
can wait —
by March I will glitter like them,
my flesh a nest of stones.
Now they stir at silver pots in silence,
ladling broth over dumplings,
lips moving over incantations I cannot hear,
fingers brushing my hair as if,
when last I was here,
they had forgotten to tell me some secret thing.


They tell me the river burned here once —
the dead do not see where they are,
they think that snarl of water is the Cuyahoga,
they think that heave of grey is Erie,
but I see, I see it,
the Phlegethon boiling into gasoline,
braceleting the Acherusian Lake, where limbs like gasping
reach up out of the wet, clutching quarters,
Kennedy half-dollars,
pennies splashing from their blue-palmed grip.

I see it, the smoke unfolding like a manuscript,
and fire like faces in the deep.

Don’t you know these are your fruits?
Don’t you know these are your flowers?

Submitted: Monday, December 12, 2011

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