Matryoshka

by Brenda Levy Tate
PenShells
Second Place (tie), January 2012
Judged by John Timpane


Pearls – a row of fish’s teeth –
rose-dot cheeks, cranberry smile.
Thick braid with all the gold
memories twining my ears.
Lacy throat, where creases
hang under the fluff. Bouquet
on my chest, with every bloom
in the birch-carven world.

Uncap my head and another
woman stares out – eclipsed
by my larger incarnation.
A clutch of hyacinths spreads
over some small wound.
I am diminished, like a cat
who follows walls and pleads
for some way past them.
A cat with emerald eyes,
pretending to be human, who
will not walk another way.

Inside, the third girl blinks
at unexpected light. Shy
as a luna moth, speckles
on my hair. Blown from wings,
perhaps, or shed like layers
of myself, doll within doll,
face behind face. I carry
a crocus: Abuse Not.

I open, open and open – gem
crown to prisoner’s wire barbs.
Lilies crumple over scarred
hearts – Mary as her pain begins,
Magdalene with drenched hair,
old shadows bent above one
fallen stone. Wax from a ring
of candles is pouring down.
I crush a thorn branch.

Only a splinter woman remains
now, on the right-hand side.
I am no longer certain
she wears my name, or any
other part I valued once.
Still, she may hold the rosemary
that I grow in my window,
flowerless but grace-filled,
caught in the last atom of all.


"Matryoshka" is an extended metaphor that actually works. Even though the notion of nesting dolls is fairly common, the poem rescues it from cliche with novel, moving applications. Here, it's the layer-beneath-layer of a woman's self, plumbed by the woman herself. What's neat is that, as she plumbs, the speaker acknowledges the mystery of herself, a mystery that only grows as she realizes more and goes deeper and deeper: "I am no longer certain/she wears my name, or any/other part I valued once." Exactly. It's refreshing for a speaker to admit s/he cannot, in the end, claim too much of a privilege of self-knowledge. The poem moves sprightly among its stanzas of short lines. I love the movement around the ends of lines especially -- here, surely, is an excellent ear for how a verse "turns," for what makes verse verse. Throughout, there is a thick, gorgeous encrustation of image ("gem/crown to prisoner's wire barbs./Lillies crumple over scarred/hearts" -- lovely vowels, lovely r's, plus great play with references to death, war, religion, and more), but the poem as a whole has an airy, spacious solidity. I don't know how you pulled that off. And the last line is, as they say, perfect. ---John Timpane

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