The Cake Eaters, & other poems


I eat strawberries in the sun
with Marie Antoinette.

Once, she picnicked in Paris
with her chosen ladies

and was the delight of all
who spied her seated on the grass.

I grow ephemeral rubies 
bedded on golden straw.

Four dollars would buy the same
boxed in transparent perfection

at the grocery store.  Marie 
does not discriminate —

winter berries are a luxury,
summer berries are a pleasure.

She wonders why I always
scourge the little whip of my mind

on such tender glories
when I know I will bank 

my shopping cart
with their fleshy hearts,

the only fruit my American child,
my little dauphine of the warming world,

will take from me, quartered to reveal
the icy white beneath their scarlet cheeks.

La Conciergerie

At the end: mud and piss on the floor,
a man calling the names of the extinguished,
the endangered species list growing shorter
as whole families are removed. Marie Antoinette knew
her own death was coming, the only logical conclusion 
of such darkness and filth.  My Protestant forebears
thought this whole green earth a dunghill, I remind her.
She says You don’t know shit until you have lain in it.
In the yard, a monarch full out of season lands upon a zinnia.
I planted the flower that misled him.  It should be decaying
on the compost heap, he winging his way to Mexico.
With age a butterfly’s wings tatter, the filaments
unclasping like fabric ripped from overuse.  Marie
wore the same dress two months in the darkness, 
forgot what the color white was meant to be, 
missed an escape plot hidden in a flower, and she 
tells me I need to stop dwelling on my errors.

The Cake Eaters

Even the revolutionaries are cake eaters now –
I have a book called Rage Baking that suggests

while the world destroys me with its news
I should bake a cake.

Angel cake, devil cake.  We hold some old
prejudices in our sugar.  When Marie Antoinette called

(she never said it) for the bread-starving to eat cake, 
slavery had been outlawed in France 500 years.

Except it hadn’t. French colonies stole men 
from their homes and sucked their lives like sugar cane. 

Most men taken to the sugar plantations lived 
fewer than ten years. Sweetness grew on blood.

Sugar’s horror should have been enough 
to dull our tongues. It wasn’t.  
How far from cane is the confectioner’s sugar 
we whip to frosting, refine, make fine, 

make white as women’s powder.
Appetite shifts like a dragon on a pile of bones.

Economics turns every desire to necessity.
Our ravening tastebuds just the ledger

column of demand. Destruction
another way of marking 

the burning fields of cane, brutal
heritage, the claimed forests: supply.

We wrack our bodies with sweetness,
breathe the smoked air of the lighted fields,   			

study patches of dead water 
downstream from the fields.

There is much damage in cake, 
but I have never denied myself its pleasures.

At the house, where we all are

I spend Sunday afternoon  sorting
			            the children’s clothing
	     from the parents’ –ours– 

we’ve worn the same banalities over and over
			            through the monotonous 
	      seasons of this homebound year

they grow thin from unnoticed use, bear the stains
		                	of forgotten crafts 
					                               my hands 
	    feel over them halfway between beggar and queen
		        the way I take softness and discard it

 I know I get to be safe here and do not know what I owe the unsafe.
                           I have done little
	    to deserve my place, my placid chores

and what is it to listen at the television’s broad mouth
history happens far from me, beyond even where highways 
		          cleave the territories of wild things
	    menacing them as they seek shelter, mates, water

in my own garden little rain has fallen but water comes rushing through the pipes
a friend’s daughter scowls in the mirror, waiting fierce 
		         for the water wars her mother says will come,  
	    the years when what we take for plenty dries away
she doesn’t know yet the dignity of those who will come
		        holding their lives tightly as she holds her own, 
how every protector is something’s taker, each of us
	   wanting all we have and more

Would You Rather

My daughter loves to ask me impossible questions:
Would you rather live in a house accessible only by ladders
or in a house one foot underwater?  Would you rather 
never be able to hug me again or go everywhere
with me riding on your back? 

Going to the library, she asks me about ways to die.
Would you rather die by being shot into the sun
or swallowed by a giant space worm? Last night,
we watched the new Dune. In it, a groundskeeper
pours water at the roots of a palm tree. The thirst of each
palm would water fifty men for a day.  Should we
remove them? asks Paul.  No, says the 
groundskeeper, These are sacred. 

Scientists already record temperatures that seem impossible,
nights holding the heat like a bag over the world's head 
and soon the earth so hot in some places 
that leaving home for a few hours will kill a man as though
he had been thrown to the desert. My own green world
may be underwater by then, a disaster of opposites.

Imagine the laconic digestion of Dune’s sand worm, 
the absoluteness of its dark bowels, a prison 
of slime and rot with no last rites.
I tell my daughter I choose flying into the sun because
I imagine death would be faster, but we might
already be in the worm’s slow belly,
the last geologic months of denial, panic, resistance.

“May the odds be ever in your favor”

My daughter wants to dress as Katniss Everdeen for Halloween.
We make her costume from black leggings and spray paint, 
Katniss in the second Hunger Games, a symbol but not yet 
a hero in her own mind, the way people have taken her up
and used her for something she isn’t ready yet to be.  I’ve done the same
thing with my child, held her up to the day as a purpose 
and a promise of improvement. And then what? 
We don’t make the world better for children,
because we are too busy bettering it for our own. My friend
Kathryn sits on the tail of her minivan and tells me 
about the wealth she’s building for her sons, impenetrable.
I know she’s afraid, we all are.  She is building a cistern
on the roof of her house, she’s a scientist, she’s telling me
the rains of the future won’t fall as they do now.  We’ll
live perched between flood and flame.  Even this week,
the water went bad somewhere in the lines and we gave up
drinking from the taps, though the end of the world
hasn’t even begun, at least in how we sense it. Late autumn 
still jeweling every green and ruby leaf, my daughter’s hair
a shining honey I braid to mimic Katniss.  I’m the one who brought
her here, to fix this world I can’t stop destroying for her sake,
as though what I hope most is not that everything would stop
descending into chaos, but that my own sweet one will be
among the saved, among the safe, watching from a distance, 
and what would my life have been if I did not ensure it would be so.

By Elizabeth Silvia