Moira Egan’s books are Cleave; La Seta della Cravatta/The Silk of the Tie; Bar Napkin Sonnets (The Ledge); and Spin (forthcoming 2010, Entasis Press). Poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry 2008. With Damiano Abeni, she published Un mondo che non può essere migliore: Poesie scelte 1956-2007, a substantial selection of poems by John Ashbery (Sossella Editore, Rome, 2008), which won a Special Prize of the Premio Napoli (2009).
Moira Egan has been a Mid Atlantic Arts Fellow at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts; Writer in Residence at St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity, Malta; a Writing Fellow at the Civitella Ranieri Center; most recently, she has been awarded a Residency at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center (summer 2010). Moira Egan lives in Rome.
(miele di corbezzolo)
bitter? I ask him as
he dips the spoon into
the jar of dark,
and he says, Yes,
and this is nothing like
anything you’ve ever
the oddest bit of syn-
aesthesia that’s ever
passed through my lips.
to be golden,
sweet and light, isn’t it?
But this viscous liquor
is rich and deep,
like Scotch or some
other strong taste you want
to acquire. And stranger,
it seems to burn
like something I’ve
always been afraid to
bitter. Try it,
“E’ la morte sua.”
And that means? I ask, though
I’m pretty sure
“Bringing together other flavors,
giving them depth and adding richness
is what bay leaves do best.”
So I’m making lentil soup tonight,
slicing the carrots,
chopping onions next to a candle
whose flame keeps me
from crying. (Yes, it really works.)
The chicken stock is rich and golden,
and we’re drinking wine
and chatting away when I realize
that we’ve run out of bay leaves. Merda,
I say, because it seems only right
to curse in the language
of the kitchen, we have no bay leaves
and the stores are closed.
The windows steam from the heat within,
the cold without.
Don’t worry, he says, I’ll get some.
Shrugging on his blue wool coat, I’ll be
right back, he strolls out.
Huh? It’s eight o’clock on Sunday night
and he’s going out for bay leaves? I stir
the soup and think of the things I know
about bay leaves. Poets
and scholars were crowned with a garland
of laurel leaves, hence,
“baccalaureate.” The Italians
and English thought
bay leaves brought good luck, protected
them against evil. (Why not? I throw
salt over my left
shoulder whenever I spill a bit.)
Their Greek name, Daphnophyllo, recalls
the story of lovely nymph Daphne.
Apollo the sun-god
took a shine to her, but Daphne was
having none of it
(and ladies, you know these tales never
end well). He chased
her like a hound-dog after a hare
until she called out to her father,
god of the river,
who changed her into a laurel tree.
Bernini’s sculpture captures them in
the beautiful fluidity of
the old dysfunction dance,
his sandaled foot kicking back, that smug,
“I’ll get you, girl” look
on his godface. Meanwhile she’s twisting
and turning in-
to leaves, branches, roots; her face, too,
twisted in absolute terror of
being caught. He aims
himself like a vampire for the kiss.
Let’s not make jokes about barks and bites;
some women would prefer —Oh! he’s back.
With a branch of bay leaves.
Where the hell did you find them? I ask.
Don’t you remember
there’s a laurel tree right down the street?
Of course I do,
though I’d never think to pick its leaves
for soup. He rinses them, kisses me.
And what strange myth is
this, roots taking hold, me unafraid?
Citrus x. limon
Something strange happened to the lemon
I’ve been using this week
on my lunchtime salads.
I squeeze some juice from it,
a little each day, to mix
with the olive oil and whatever veggies
are crisp and green from the market.
(I’m not sure if it was my
time in Greece or my
previous ayurvedic training
that makes me balk at using
in the springtime.)
But all I need’s a little squeeze, then
I put the squishy shell
of rind and pulp back in
its plastic grocery bag,
then in the fridge where it seems
to be marinating surreptitiously
in its own lemon juices, rind
sweet. So when he takes
it out to squeeze on the agretti
that we’re boiling for dinner,
he sees that it’s unusual.
What have you done
with the lemon rind? It’s like candy.
I explain my lunchtime
salad habits, posit
the theory that lemons,
soaked in their own acerbic
juice long enough, might grow voluptuary,
even sweet. He says, Let’s have it
for dessert. So we try it
first with sugar, then
with chestnut honey, then arancia,
but I decide I want to try
with salt. He just smiles and says, Go
In this country
it’s a tradition
to make a wish upon
the first bite
of the season’s fruit,
the first peach, cherry, nectarine,
cachi, so as I peel this
first fig, slowly pull its skin away
like a mammalian membrane,
I make the wish
that each of our
days might have some of
that taste of reunion
absence, the salty-
sweet homecoming kiss, the airport
embarrassment of laughing
and crying both into each other’s
shirts. And it seems to me the fig
is the perfect
of all the above,
the fruit of yin and yang,
in shape, yet deeply
feminine in its opening;
how, on the one hand, it was
a tree like this under which Buddha
sat and found enlightenment, while
on the other,
these were the leaves
that Adam reached for
to clothe their humanness
when they saw
that they were naked
and learned of shame. How many fruits
acquire their musky sweetness
from the strange symbiosis of wasp
and worm? I don’t know, but I think
of the first figs
of that summer
when we met, how he
carefully peeled the fruit,
the sweet and strangely
tentacular flesh, almost too
ripe but not quite, and he kissed me
and church bells clamored out the Angelus
and he kissed me again and (yes)
I made a wish.
Today’s most emailed article
in The New York Times
is about “the tiny fruit
that tricks the tongue”
into thinking that a scoop
of lemon sorbet in a pint
of Guinness is a chocolate shake;
that limes are as sweet
that cheap tequila tastes
like aged Patrón.
I’m telling him about this strange
phenomenon as I
finish cooking our dinner,
which is a hunk
of beef braised in wine and oil
with all the spices the butcher
has suggested: cloves, nutmeg,
bay leaves, pepper, salt,
a strong mix
intended to “improve”
these lesser cuts
of meat left to poorer Romans
for centuries. How else
to account for this city’s
love for things like
pajata (calves’ intestines)
coda alla vaccinara
(oxtail stewed for hours in sauce)
and even lingua
(yes, tongue) served
cool, with piquant mustard
I explain that “miracle fruit”
a protein that “binds with taste
buds” and makes things
taste sweet when it comes into
contact with acids. But I don’t
understand, he says, spearing an
olive, why someone
wants to taste
something that’s not there, and not
the something that is.
My Name Is Ariadne…
and I have a problem.
It’s true, my friends, fluent in myths
and criticism, I’m fond of my drink.
But what do you know of the labyrinth
my family, my father wearing the horns
my mother made love to, animal seduction
in the basement. Then we kept it there,
my bastard half-brother, his hunger
mushrooming in the dark, and our terror.
We fed him the young, the pure, to silence his roars.
One day the incoming ship brought me my hero.
Looking at him was like looking in a mirror:
he’d rescue me if I’d rescue him, pursued, pursuer.
He’d sneak into my room, I’d feed him wine & gyros,
together we spun our plan. He would unspiral
the thread that would bind him always to me.
The hero’s job of work: he’d slay the beast,
and, bright in the daylight, finally free,
I’d flee with him across the wine-blue sea.
Talk about your fear of abandonment.
When he left me on that island
I went blind.
What’s a human
girl to when
her hero cuts out, gutless, snips the thread
between you, leaves you for dead?
That Other came upon me in the grove,
half-asleep, still weeping. With his mauve glove
he wiped the snot and tears from my face. “Love,”
he said, “I’ve got just thing, mavro-
daphne, dark and sweet…” From above
a wild song floated down, feathers,
leaves, something. That’s all I remember.
Dionysus says he’s worried, I’m unstable.
Last night I got up, dithyrambs on the table,
my sweat-soaked scarves whipping, jade
and crimson, smacked the waiter
by mistake … lost count of my meter, unable
to stand alone.
He says I cling too tight
now, I choke him like vines.
Mornings after, I start with wine.
The Minotaur’s Bad Rap
The story, after all, is not so unusual:
beautiful woman seduced by beautiful bull—
But, like bones in the basement, rotting,
there’s a lot that lies forgotten
of that beastly plot you know me by.
It may be true that I was born of unholy desires,
but weren’t you? Where I come from, Gods and Fates conspire—
adolescent practical jokers—
to craft these inconceivable yokings,
king + peasant girl, woman + swan.
At home in no kingdom, neither animal nor human
but a stigma, I was hidden in the basement.
Only once a year they fed me:
seven sons and seven maidens.
I tore into them, imagining their parents’
mannered grieving, their hair and clothing ripped,
as they lowed away like cattle on that black-sailed ship.
Upstairs my family heard my roars
and read them violence, anger.
The king had the columns painted sun-baked blood.
I curled up alone in the labyrinth’s deep cool.
My witless princess sister had her hero, her fool,
creep up on me while sleeping.
It was the only way to beat me.
And I’d been dreaming of my grandfather, the sun.
Fragments from Book XVII:
Penelope Leaves the Great Rooted Bed
I. Taking Leave
When you left
the floor clean, the traces
of your feet, caked mud,
wildflowers, trampled, tiny leaves.
Then I brewed mountain tea
and sweetened it with honey.
I tried to read the leaves,
but I only saw you stand
to say, I’ll leave,
your hands poised and still
as an icon painted
smooth in silver leaf.
And as cool.
For your arrival,
O, the one good evening,
did you see how the leaves
around my bed
the light, silvergreen
Today I unwound
and took them down,
shriveling and gray.
Coming back I found
a hummingbird trapped
in the hallway.
I swear I felt her panic,
her tiny beak clicking
as she battered
at the panes.
My heart felt large
as I guided her out
to fly away.
II. Apostasy – απόσταση
Today I have a view
of Mt. Olympus, filigreed with snow.
Life isn’t bad here, you know.
I eat honey redolent of thyme.
Figs and pomegranates,
olives and almonds grow wild.
Alchemical sunsets hammer gold
from lead, the rays even redder
than the madder of a family drama.
Clouds scuttle by like frightened children.
And each day I teach myself a word
in this language. Today it’s distance:
apostasy. No heresy, it’s an art to larn
to leave before a whisper of abandon.
It’s January. The leaves are green.
I dream of the people I love when I travel.
I’m sad to say I’ve little time to weave.
In spite of that, at night, I still unravel.
III. Other Beds
U: I crave
olives at bedtime, mar-
tini dreams, unsettling.
their fingers at my pill-
ows and bolsters.
(I admit it’s hard
to sleep without
But too well I dwell
on your wine dark-
ened wanderings at night.
Did you ever remember
what I looked like
when I cried?
I apologize for leaving
our bed stripped,
cold, without character.
But I think you understand
I’ll take my comfort-
ers in every place I can.
I won’t leave you alone
forever. Slowly, slowly,
I sow the seeds
of my return
to you, O, my pome-
Ellipses – έλλειψεσ
O, I’ve come to a place
where “I miss
you” looks like an ellipsis.
Ellipsis. When words
not needed for meaning
are missing: a little hole
torn in the sentence.
at the airport terminal.”
Ellipsis. The marks that show
Little dots suggesting…
punctuates a face
Brief in speaking;
“I am leaving.”
Ellipsis. The crack
in the syntax, severe,
a broken mirror. And
my lavender oil
has lost its fragrance.
I have no salt here
…am tired of trying
Ellipsis. From the Greek
…defective, falling short.
Can we rest for a moment
in the circle, imperfect,
of these arms?
Dear Mr. Merrill,
I hope you’ll pardon the informality
of this letter, postmarked Olympia
(Greece, not Washington), its task not simple:
crossing lines you’ve crossed, time, mortality,
to find you, who spent a lifetime crossing lines
out, twisting, polishing them to shine
cool and lustrous as the statue I fell in
love with yesterday. I’m sure you saw him
too, that perfect Hermes by Praxitelis,
full lips, hips contrapposto. I wished to draw him
down, latter-day Pygmalion, and embrace
him. Or barring Eros (and the guards) I’d trace
his face, the supple muscle of the marble.
I had a student who resembled him—
yes, Angelos—arrogant and beautiful.
I never touched him though he touches me in dreams.
Eros dangles his perfection in our faces
like one-armed Hermes with his promise of the grapes.
I was certain I’d dream of him last night.
Instead I dreamed another in the growing chain
of others with whom it ended not quite
right. But the thirst was perfect, if its price pain
and shattered crystal, spilling wine, all part
and parcel of our imperfect lives. Then Art
startles out of heartache, marble or page.
You learned this long ago. Now I too see
the wildest things require the strongest cages,
the panther’s double bars, or the seeds,
bloodysweet and bitter, in the pomegranate’s
rind. Love held tight in a sonnet.
Publication acknowledgments for the poems:
The poems from Strange Botany appeared in the following journals:
Barrow Street: Citrus x. limon
Cadenza (UK): Arbutus unedo (miele di corbezzolo)
Gargoyle: Laurus nobilis
Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review: Ficus carica; Synsepalum dulcificum
Ficus carica also appears in the anthology Poesie per anime gemelle
(transl., Damiano Abeni; Newton Compton Editori, Italy, 2009)
My Name is Ariadne…, The Minotaur’s Bad Rap, Fragments from Book XXVII: Penelope Leaves the Great Rooted Bed, and Dear Mr. Merrill are from Cleave (Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2004).
Dear Mr. Merrill first appeared in POETRY.
Poetry in this post: © Moira Egan
Published with the permission of Moira Egan