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All My Wives

From issue 31 , a poem by Cate Marvin. Be sure to check out her poems in the current issue of Tin House, which come from her third book, a work in progress that is forthcoming from Norton.

all my wives

When I say my wives are cages, I don’t mean I’m a bird.
Collapsible shelves, they hide their usefulness when not
in use. All my wives contain terrariums: terrible and fetid
atmospheres in which their salamander selves linger atop
damp rocks. Their hands are damp as the tissues they ball
in their hands, though none of my wives could make a fist,
not even if I asked, no, not even if I commanded them to,

an amusing idea I must someday revisit. My wives are like
the Small Mammal House at the zoo, their rooms kept dark
so visitors may view their nocturnal truths, that anonymous
wakefulness we sleepers do not care to know. None of my
wives are like lanterns, nor do their ribs sing with canaries.
It does my wives good to run errands, for it keeps them
purposeful. I do not allow pockets on their shirts or skirts.

Theirs are unforgiving interiors. A woman’s hands should
always be in plain sight, preferably chafed from dishwater
and cold. A woman’s hands should be kept raw from wind
and sewing. When I want my wives to come out, I turn off
the lights and crouch to listen as they compare me: Who do
I smack more often? Whom shall I take for my queen? They think
I take pleasure in belaboring this decision, yet to think of it

is to imagine I might someday purchase a book I’ve never
desired to read. When I snap the lights on, they scatter like
roaches. Why read when there are so many worried brows
upon which to set the delicate glass of my gaze down? One
of my wives petitioned, once. One of them dared to cry.
They’ve tried to make me sad with their eyes. Let them try.
I would rather buy a hat, a walking stick, move alone within

my chamber, pose before my mirror. I do not need a queen,
I do not like tantrums. At times, I shudder, alone in my bed,
when I consider how their desires must churn like the onset
of inclement weather. They could be one, she could be one
hundred. I just saw her shadow skulking down the walk. She’s
drunk, as usual. Her shakes, her heart murmurs, her general
unease. Pity the creature. She has a disease. If it gets worse,

I’ll be forced to consider treatment. All my wives have four
legs each. What we call arms may as well be legs, so it seems
to me as I kneel behind each, not knowing one from the other,
only their asses’ moon-curves aglow in lamplight. With such
anonymity, we are pleasured. It would not do for them to undo
the tiny latches, the wire doors to their cages. It would not do
to lift the lids of their terrariums. Something untoward might

escape, roam the grounds. For then I should be afraid to walk
alone at night, my new hat atop my clean head, walking stick
in hand, as I move onward, staking out crevices, damp places
that lock my eyes: the fragrant earth I move atop my inheritance,
the herd of them breathing behind me in the dark. At the thrill
of their whispers, I stick my stick into the ground, turn on my
boot’s heel. My wife, on her four legs, waits quietly in the hay.

Cate Marvin’s second book, Fragment of the Head of a Queen, appeared in 2007. A Whiting Writers’ Award recipient, Marvin is an associate professor at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, and cofounder of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (vidaweb.org).

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Posted in From The Vault, Poetry

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