In the Beginning

by Brenda Levy Tate
Second Place, October 2011
Judged by Nathalie Handal

Our mothers taught us too well
to fear the snake, author of a cry
under the knife, a cutting, the mangled
cord that loops us to a single loss:
one night when we forgot
to be wary. The rind stretches,
inevitably bursts.

In this blackberry meadow
we gather – we women who hold
that same pomegranate
the serpent offers, month after month,
year upon bloody year, until its lure
gleams flat as a mirror, raised
for us to bear witness.

Here, then, are its red-jellied ova
in their five hundred cradles: this,
a sea maid with war under her fists;
this, a dust orphan who believes
only that each road leads
to some new sorrow.

There, tumbling downriver,
a firstborn son grasps his own
ankles, jellyfishes on the current.
And there, a buttercup lass
without voice refuses to curse
her creator. She does not recognize
a bribe when it dangles in front
of her hand. The swollen skin is fruit –
nothing more. She wrinkles it
into the dirt.

We limp toward our dry age,
when every kernel is blown and gone.
I throw off my heavy scarf
dividing skull from spine. Thought
has become acceptable. I am
no longer forbidden to jackknife
questions for my enemy
in a round-bark trunk. Nothing
grows inside me any more.

The Garden temptress hums sweet
as a harp – she, who has tricked
us from the beginning. Her secret
teeth fill a gourd with droplets
of juice. Its neck juts firm,
the last man-thing in paradise.
The false adder hangs her trap
on a thorn. Insects jostle each other.
Come, you are not too late.
Flies’ wings click-zip together
like angel bones.

She could have bitten Eve
instead of feeding her. She has never
shared a bond with Adam, the lust
that urges every poor girl to damn
herself. Now she relives that choice,
over and over, having no legs
to walk away from it. We are all too late,
but she understands.

We watch her tend the tree, cultivate
its next crop – wisdom and illusion.
Apples for fools. Pomegranates for the rest,
who should know better. She lacks
interest in us now.

Then we leave her there and follow
the flowless rivers out of Eden,
where beheaded grasses shake and mourn.
She has taken our wombs before
letting us go. No rapture can ever enter us
by that path again. The gate rings
as it closes.

There is a breath at the center of this poem that breaks our expectations. Forces us to ponder on the complexity of illusion, and of temptation. To question what we understand and think we don’t understand, and ask, are we really “too late.” Every line, an echo. Every word, a small cry. Every letter, a damnation. But we are reminded that although, “She has taken our wombs before / letting us go. No rapture can ever enter us / by that path again. The gate rings / as it closes.” This poem doesn’t let you go. The strength of this poem is in the immediacy of the lines, in their precision. It closes in on us, only to open all the gates at the edge of our conscious. ---Nathalie Handal