Poetry at Sangam



O GREAT BEAUTIES! by Tishani Doshi

                                                O fatty dishes of love!
                                                            Wisława Szymborska

O Great Beauties, I have encountered
you in museums across the world,
observed you and your ilk burst against frames—
bonneted, corseted, hiding from rain.

I’ve coveted your wardrobes of lace
and silk. Dreamt of renaissance gowns
and acres of pickadils. O the majesty of ruff,
of petticoat tails, mantuas, farthingales!

Not to mention the excellent headgear!
Fontages and feathers, chignons and wigs.
And the sleeves, such a dizzying variety of sleeves!
Slashed, dropped, poofy, fastened back.

In my study of beauty I’ve also made note
of the suitable props of babies and embroidery,
viola da gambas, pianofortes, hankies,
to distract or accentuate bosoms, according

to the chronology of fashion. Of the paleness
of brow, and the eyes riven with requisite
sadness as Pooch snores gaily at your foot.
But Ladies, fripperies aside, I must hasten.

I must ask dear daughters of important houses,
heroines of epics, Helens, whores, how did you know
to obscure your true selves? Wherefrom the maturity
to swallow your grins and hide your teeth?

Even you—Ms Cornelia Burch, barely two
months old, oppressed in swaddling bands
clutching your sharktoothed golden rinkelbel.
How did you perfect the art of staring so well?

Were there sisters banned from immortality
for being too tan or toothy? For guffawing
into their hands while the maestro said, Please,
Madame, a little concentration on the stand!

O Golden-haired girls scoured of makeup,
could you know that your direct descendants
would dismiss your resplendence; call you
Plane Jane, or worse: Munter, Minger.

That the gargantuan fortress of your lives
could be captured so clearly in a single portrait?
I mean no disregard, Beauties, to the centuries
of devotion to serious women.

Just explain the mystery to me.
Did the darkness burn all around?
Or did you see, as I see—a quiet wood
outside the town, with a banquet

in a field of belladonna? Did spirits slide
among trees with amulets and potions,
loosening the knots of emotion in your diaphragm,
tongue, throat, lip, larynx, palate, jaw?

Did you strip the mutinies of silk
from the ridges of your ungodly body,
revel in the clumps of skin and hair while the hunt
blazed around the edges of the lair?

And when the night-hag finally arrived,
did you invite her to bed, offer her a carafe
of your finest red, open the pearls
of your mouth to the world, and laugh?