Apr 302010
 

Here we come at last to the end of April, the month we all began as fools. Do we now end as hermits, the secluded wise? We may or may not; however, in our concluding installment in honor of National Poetry Month in the United States, we do have a modern urban anchorite to see us off into the lusty month of May. Catherynne M. Valente joins us today with a poem of blood and glass, of the love among sisters, and of a certain cinder-maid.

Catherynne very nearly needs no introduction here: her short piece “The Maiden-Tree” helped inaugurate Scheherezade’s Bequest, while her column Child’s Play concerning the Child Ballads did the same for Cabinet des Fées in print . A mythpunk activist, she has written the Tiptree award-winning The Orphan’s Tales, the Hugo-nominated Palimpsest, and is currently working on novels inspired by Prester John and Koschei the Deathless (in Stalinist Russia!) respectively. She’s also published several volumes of poetry and been nominated for several awards in poetry; in 2008, she took a Rhysling with her The Seven Devils of Central California. Most recently, she has been working on two crowdfunded projects: The Omikuji Project: Cycle I and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. She accomplishes all this while living on a small island off the coast of Maine, surrounded by her Carnival of Beasts, with a kitchen full of witchery and a basket full of textiles. We can imagine her knitting there, by the sea, but we have to wonder: what exactly is she knitting with?

“Blood, Glass, and Ash” was originally published in GrendelSong, and is currently available in A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects, published by Norilana Press under the Curiosities imprint.

“Glass, Blood, and Ash” by Catherynne M. Valente

I.

 

Please, silk-sister, do this thing for me.

I do not want to sit on that broad-backed horse,
or smell his skin, grassy and hot as boiled husks,
inside a shirt ropy with gold tassels and primogeniture.

I never wanted it. I just
wanted to look like you
for one night. It should be you
hoisted up like a sack of wheat—
I stole your ruby comb,
your garnet pendant.
It must have been
your jewels he loved.

You will like it — they will put emeralds in your hair
and a thin gold crown on your head.
They will rub your skin down to supple
like a favorite tiger, soon to be
a favorite carpet.
Your spine is fit to queen-posture, not mine.

It is only a little shoe, only a little lie.
It was made from a mirror whose glass
was ground in another tale.
Look into it. It surely sings
that you are the fairer.

The doves, their claws still dusty with kitchen-ash
brought me a knife hammered out of a diamond.

It is so thin
that a breath will shatter it,
but so sharp
that the flesh it cleaves
does not even know
it has been cut.

Give me your heel.
I am the kind one, remember?
I would not hurt you.

Please, we are sisters;
out of the same striped pelt
did our father scissor our hearts.
Do this thing for me
your sister is afraid of the man
who loves her so much
he cannot remember her face.

Hold your breath—
I shall hold mine.

II.

The ash that crossed my forehead
was finer than the ash that greyed my feet—
soft as a kiss.

I wanted to dance. I wanted to be warm.
I wanted to eat. I wanted anything
but the furnace-grating cutting its
familiar welt-mark
into my back.

With my forehead exalted I went into the wood,
calling out to a dead mother
like a saint with her eyes on a plate.
But she did not come—
a nightingale instead hopped towards me
baring her little brown breast.

I am the song of your beauty, it chirped.

Like a hoopoe, she bent her head
and bit her own heart
in two. Out of her thin chest
spilled a gown red and gleaming,
bright as blisters.

It was this I wore under the palace arches,
this which cuffed my wrists,
cupped my breasts,
pinched my waist.

I walked into his arms bathed
in the blood of a nightingale,
and when we parted
he was drenched in scarlet.

III.

Please, silver-sister, do this thing for me.

I do not want to wear that dress again.
I do not want to kiss him, I do not want
to know what a prince tastes like. I do not want
to hear the castle doors shut behind me.

I never wanted it. I only wanted
to stand in that torchlight for a second
and feel as you must always feel.
It should be you hoisted up
with his saddlebags—
I stole your coral ring
and your attar of roses.
It must have been
your scent he loved.

You will like it — they will put pearls on your fingers
and a thin ivory crown on your head.
They will hang you up in a hall
and everyone will look at you,
everyone will remark how beautiful you are.
Your spine is fitted to that golden hook, not mine.

It is only a little shoe, only a little lie.
It was made from a coffin whose glass
was ground in another tale.
Look into it. It surely promises peace.

The arch is full of her blood, yes,
but that pours out as easily as soup from a ladle.

The doves, their claws still dusty with kitchen-ash,
brought me a knife hammered out of a diamond.

It is so thin
that a whisper will shatter it,
but so sharp
that the flesh it cleaves
believes itself whole.

Give me your toe.
I am the gentle one, remember?
I would not hurt you.

Please, we are sisters;
out of the same white wood
did our father hew our hearts.
Do this thing for me
your sister is afraid of the man
who loves her so much
he cannot tell her from any other.

Cinderella by Charles Folkard.

Cinderella by Charles Folkard.

Be silent—
so shall I.

IV.

 

Is there not another daughter in this house?

My hand is cold and heavy in his. The shoe
is full as a spoon, their blood
bright as blisters. My foot
glides noiseless in
on that slick scarlet track.

He tastes of dead gold.

My skin is tiger-supple,
there are emeralds in my hair,
pearls on my fingers
a thin ivory crown on my head.
I am loved; I am polished.

From my hook in the hall,
I can see the gardens.

***

This poem haunts, from beginning to end, whether you believe Cinderella’s words to be Machiavellian or honest beseeching. The imagery of a glass slipper filled with blood is so potent here, and perfectly descriptive of reading “Glass, Blood, and Ash” – here is Cinderella, a tale so ubiquitous that it’s transparent, and yet this rendition has the power to cut us to the heart, and collect our blood for show.

Catherynne was kind enough to set aside her knitting needles and turn her typing fingers away from storytelling to correspond with us for an interview. Read on to discover something about her poetic origins, who she wants to see in a mythpunk poetry slam, and how knitting could perhaps be interstitial art.

Deborah: What’s the origin story behind “Glass, Blood, and Ash”?

Catherynne: I was the featured poet for a zine called GrendelSong, and they’d asked for five poems from me. I thought it would be fun to do a set of five on a theme, and the theme I came up with was blood. At some point in the process my mind lighted on Cinderella and the severed heels and toes of her sisters, and I thought of it as kind of a challenge. Given that Cinderella is possibly the most retold fairy tale of all time, could I say anything new about it? And what I felt I could say was “Glass, Blood, and Ash.” Where all the agency of the story is Cinderella’s, but she still ends up stuck, lost, because that’s what happens to princesses. I’m sure some of my own bitterness about my first marriage to a naval officer is in there–the closest American culture has to princes. But the most striking thing about the story to me at that moment was that the prince loved Cinderella so much, but couldn’t even remember her face. She was literally interchangeable with any other girl. That’s terrifying to me. And a fate I can imagine she would be desperate to escape, even to coaxing her sisters to mutilate themselves to take her place.

I also liked having a tender and loving relationship between the sisters. I am myself a stepchild, and while my stepparent and I had issues, that never extended to my siblings. Sibling love is powerful, and not explored deeply enough for my taste.

Deborah: Mythpunk poetry slam: two poets enter, one poet leaves. Who would you most like to see throw down, and which would your money be on?

Catherynne: Like, anyone ever? Anne Sexton vs. John Keats. Hospital Rally. Or do you mean contemporary poets? CSE Cooney vs Amal El-Mohtar. My money’s on the blonde, but Amal bites. Literally and figuratively.

Deborah: You recently honeymooned in Russia, which I know involved several extremely unfortunate bumps along the way. However, ignoring those with our luxury of time and distance, let’s focus on how this was actually something you’d longed to do for some time. What resonated for you most strongly there? And did you write vodka-infused poetry, or pen lines while wandering the old streets, while looking out Anna Ahkmatova’s window?

Catherynne: Oh, you know me too well. I did write a few lines at her window, about the crows snapping at the rosehips in the courtyard below. I loved being in her house, in the autumn, the tiny rooms and scraps of her life all around. Though I think what resonated most strongly for me was visiting the Siege of Leningrad museum. The old women who work there are all survivors of the Siege, and we spoke with one woman who had been evacuated as a small child. Listening to her stories, her way of speaking, her love and hate for the city, I was moved to tears many times. Sometimes you can feel the exact moment a book begins in you, you know?

Deborah: When did you first know you were a poet?

Catherynne: I wrote my first poem at age 10 — at least the first time I remember sitting down to write a poem. I certainly felt it as an identity by my early teen years, whether those efforts are worth anything now or not. Probably not. I first published at 19, and when my first novel came out I was accused by nearly everyone of passing off poetry as fiction. I am what I am, I guess. These days I write a lot more fiction than poetry, but pretty much? I’m still just passing off verse as prose. Ha ha! I am a bandit. I have bandoliers full of pen nibs! My mask is very dashing also.

Deborah: I know you’re a supporter of interstitial arts. I know you’re recently a convert to the Cabal of Fiber Arts. So, what do you think: can poetry and knitting be synthesized? How would you do it?

Catherynne: What a great question! I think titling knitted projects as some jewelers title their pieces is a good start. You can spin shreds of fabric with words written on them into yarn. You can listen to poetry being read as you knit, so the words and the stitches occupy the same point in time. I’d be willing to bet you could design patterns based on rhyme schemes, on the shapes of formal poetry. A scarf is just a long column, after all…

All arts can be synthesized. You just have to want to see what strange children they make.

Discover more of Catherynne M. Valente’s work and follow her blog by checking out her website.

***

I’d like to thank Catherynne, Amal, and Seanan once more for letting us feature their poetry and interview them in honor of National Poetry Month!

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