The Ballad of All the Things I Might Have Written

by Catherynne M. Valente

In a meadow of wild mint and bladderwrack
home to precisely three stones, each shawled in moss
like young librarians just taken to knitting,
stands a tower, just the way towers
have learned to stand,
through great effort
and postgraduate scrutiny
of hoary, subtle texts.

It was to this place I came riding
(riding, riding --
for we must all of us
carry Noyes in our saddlebags now,
It is a law, we may be pulled over
with bone-tongued bells
and harried at the border,
if we are found wanting)
It was to this place I came riding,
on a sad-eyed doe with hooves of tin --
for who can afford the care and keeping
of a bull-headed gelding
with breeding in his flared nostrils,
in this late and degenerate age?

How much easier to seduce the brown-flanked girl
who kicked down the greenwire fence around my garden
to chew up my summer squash,
root up my onions,
grin up at me with a mouth full of oregano.

It was to this place I came riding,
(riding, riding -- in compliance, I)
in my armor of Ohio steel,
lake-rusted at the greave,
the helm a mess of mangled
steering column. Where should a girl like me
find fluted shoulder plates
and an ostrich plume?

The tower stood soldierly,
stubborn April ice
hanging like curtains in the windows,
white mushrooms bolting through the stone.
And in the topmost room,
under the cedar-planked roof --
well, she was never meant to surprise.
Boethius knew her name, rank, serial number,
before she could open her mouth.
She sits there with her cross-stitch half-finished
because if a tower does not
contain a maiden,
it will be shortly, starkly reprimanded,
even expelled. The market is competitive --
each one guards its girl
like a graduate assistant.

This one had a crown of fern spores,
and wore the moon as a bracelet --
she saved up every penny
since the night she was born
to buy it down from the miserly dark. Naked
she looked cat-shrewd at me through weedy strands
of mint-stitched hair, and said in a voice
like the wind through a lunar crater:

"Why do you write such long poems?"

I knelt -- it is for knights to kneel --
and removed my helmet
so that she could see my honest scalp.

"Lady, I have nothing short to say."

She took my face in her stella maris hands,
and her eyes had stars in their deeps.

"But paper is so dear,
and no one wants to read six pages
of elegiac examinations of folklore.
Have you considered haiku?
Something humorous,
something with
an amusing rhyme?"

I bent my face to her spotless floor,
which smelled of volcanic dust
and old ice.
"Could you have bought your bracelet moon
with five pennies, and another seven,
and five again?"

The maiden frowned, picking a pigeon feather
from her cobalt stockings. The lines
around her mouth were like
a manuscript too often scraped bare.

"When I was young," she said,
and how thick her voice was, thick as a ream
and twice as heavy,
"And the moon was young, too,
she would not have cost so much
as when she was grown
and I was grown."

Finches in the damp wind:
         I closed my chafed hand on hers
and whispered: "I know."

Listen to Catherynne reading the poem.
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