A Silver Splendour, A Flame
by Catherynne M. Valente
Act I: Those Flickering Shadow Sweethearts
[Down in the pit the orchestra warms a cacophony over the stove.
Nothing but the best for tonight's half-empty house,
no fee too small, no act too large, and oh, look, honey,
they’ve got Theseus on trombone, in the back there--no, THERE, with the black curls
and the girls
on each arm.
Hermes on banjo--what kind of low-rent show is this?
But there’s old king thunder banging down the drums
and Orpheus, just as pretty as the gossip rags say,
pumping the spit valve on his horn.
Sure, but Demeter’s the big draw, the prima donna,
with a chest like a galleon and a mezzo that’ll knock you,
if you’ll forgive the turn of phrase, dead.
And the conductor? Well,
you can find his name on the program, but we don’t like to brag:
the man in black with his bone baton
and a Puritan look, calling the cues like hits to the chest. Point. Point. Point.
In the end, though, you came to see the pretty girl. The ingenue.
She’s warming up her monologue down left, pacing through her blocking,
every night the same show, the same tease in a spangled chiton,
the same wriggle and shimmy and kick--still,
she wants to get it perfect this time,
wants to hit her marks. She’s a pro by now, and you gotta respect her craft.
By the time she opens her mouth to speak
you can see everything, kid, and I mean EVERYTHING,
all the way down to her death.
The girl says she’s ready.
Lights down. House so-so.
Red curtain and the opening hymn--quiet, please.
Now I served tea to the Sibyl of Cumae: darjeeling with a rind and a splash
and a lump of sugar shaped like a girl sinking
down, down, down
into the dark tannic swirl
a cup just as deep as a year.
And she said: honey, you don’t want to tell this story
It’s a worn out old shoe
Lookit your deathworm toes all stickin’ out of the leather
still waggling towards Elefsis--
but what the world don’t need
is another poem about Persephone.
Didja ever want to say something so big
you knew you weren’t ready, so you trained up
you ate and ate, ate like a snake,
like a husband, like a
queen of bread and a duchess of butter,
just to get a belly on, a belly
deep enough to say it,
one verse at a time? Just to get
bigger than the thing you want to say,
the vaudeville synecdoche
that could stand for everything at once?
But instead I spit: how’s the jam this year, old woman?
And I call her by her pet name
And I say it in Greek
and she scolds my conjugation.
Oh, my grammar is older than hers
and my favorite tense
is a clay tablet breaking.
So you’ve heard it before.
So have I.
That’s the point.
When that girl looks down
at the severing earth
the crocus split in half like a purple womb,
at the black throne coming up
like an ofﬁce elevator hissing:
With the sure weight of equinoxes
The axis of the earth
thrusts down through the poles
and comes out through her empty womb
and bitter as beer.
I’ll stop telling this story
Just as soon as it stops
happening to me.
Red, and still hot, and bitter as beer.
time to do your job, sweetheart. Punch
that pre-Cambrian clock like a prizeﬁghter
It’s no fun
if she doesn’t know what’s coming.
No girl understands her mother. How she is the rock cracking open/to let a girl the color of wheat/come into the sun. How
she bristles when the bells chime/and the violins surge/and the man with the mustache appears on the scene. How she
knows there’s train tracks and screeching steam engines coming/and she can’t stop it.
Oh I was the Radish Queen back in ’31/ and sure, when I spun the wheel the cherries came up for me/ every time, but
mama apple pie don’t turn her back on her baby girl/even when her baby girl
who suicided out
of a tough rhyme
and painting her eyes
to go to art school
like a dead thing.
the drummer from
band with skulls
on their fingers
what do you say?
You say don’t
make my mistakes
your father (lightning bolts
on his guitar case)
nine months ripe.
Carnival men never stay
past curtain call.
There at my black table, orange buds in a vase,
bone phonograph scratching out
Count Basie on the black and whites:
All Right OK, You Win
(I’ll do anything you say)
I could feel April coming on like a steam-train
with my mother in the dining car
and all her goblet-glasses shattering
as she sings my name.
She’ll get off at the platform
with a brass band tooting
some summer anthem,
my mother the beauty,
Radish Queen of Kern County, 1931.
I only made the Cornﬂower Court--
I have a trophy much smaller than hers.
She’ll look me over, brush the graveyard dirt
from my hair
turns up the music so she can’t hear
there are vampires
in this world
and they need your life
to keep them living
and wouldn’t you rather
lay in the sun in your
nice celery green
the color of wheat?
We could work up
a double act
while juggling fire
a crown of serrano peppers
in our matching hair
(Daddy’s boy Aeschylus
and anyone can do
Juliet or Lady MB.)
The Radish Queen
and the Cornﬂower Princess
Every night at seven & nine.
harsher than you mean it:
Don’t you have a smile for me?
Don’t you have a kiss for me?
So sullen, so thin.
You take after your father.
Just get in the car.
Did he knock you up this year?
Put a deathshead daughter in your belly
to try my patience?
Just get in the car.
You say: maybe I could have been better/bigger for you/maybe I could have had more plums and barley and valencias for
you/to eat from the skin of my hands/maybe I could have surrounded you/with grain like iron/but the thing about loving
show folk is/ they’ll drive you to drink/the seas dry/drive you to blight the earth to ice just to spite their face/ and yours too.
You’ll shrivel the onions in the ground/turn off the sun, just to show you can. And maybe/you call down the crows to gobble
up five years’ seeds, just to win an argument who looks like/
a little girl.
The car is the color of wheat.
She is the color of apples and olives and yeast rising.
She’ll give me a Coke
shake it till it froths
and tell me where to put it
as if I don’t know
how not to have death’s baby.
If that doesn’t do
it’ll be a doctor’s back room
which will also be
the color of wheat.
But she loves me.
Like the sun
Love is weight and fusion.
We put our backs to it once a year,
a little too heavy to lift.
He loves me, too.
At the table with the orange buds
and Count Basie
and the hard-scrap snow outside almost melted
I write out my poems
with a green fountain pen.
For a long time all that mattered
to the viewers at home
Did I want it all along?
Did I want to go
or was I taken? Was I
And what they’re really
gagging to know is:
Am I that kind of girl?
The kind who,
even when she’s wearing black,
is wearing red?
Look at me.
What’s a virgin but a crocus turned inside out?
I picked a crocus. That’s all.
It was as bright as a heart.
Persephone pounds out her poems in the morning
on a shadow-typewriter
all the clacking keys are tombstones
and her ﬁngers strike them true.
I was born to the business.
Mama spat me out
behind the ferris wheel
on a midway full
of confetti and popcorn and July ﬁreworks.
She didn’t miss me too much, really.
There was always something needed doing
tickets taking, cider making,
a fuse blown in the haunted house. What did she care
that I ran off with the strong man?
The lady just wanted to win.
I was always that kind of girl.
they don’t make dresses any whiter than
I am not Demeter’s daughter.
I am Heisenberg’s ripe tomato
I am Niels Bohr’s piece on the side.
In the winter I am a particle.
In the summer I am a wave.
And I didn’t get to be queen of hell
by letting folks off easy.
[Bear with us as the stage boys set up a screen. Real silk, imported from Paris or London--
wherever the fashionable chickies import silk from, that’s where we got it. It takes time
to get the reels set up, to feed the film into the machine, to get the silver ball rolling.
The piano player has two faces, one turned toward the audience, one to her sheet music--
but don’t worry! It’s only a mask, only make-up, make-fun, make-believe. Underneath all that
she really has three. Her six hands strike up a triumphal march. The orchestra
It’s his turn onstage, the masculine, dashing lead,
the reason Rochester ever looked like love
death in an ice-cream suit and a straw hat tipping toward you, ladies, just for you,
a hat like a scythe and a clew.
Don’t you just love that rickety-tickety rattling sound
the projector makes
before it gives up its ghosts?]
Hades, the man in the hat, the man with the chair,
the man who sells measures of shadow and sound,
he wore a black beret
like stone crown
and when he saw me he whistled
his old corvid tune. On a street screeched with sunshine,
he saw me standing still, the grand director,
still shooting monochrome,
every eye a pool of forgetting, every face a mass of ﬂoating
ﬂeeting silver foam.
How Hades came for me: a tripod on his back,
his clapperboard snapping like bones,
never enough takes, never enough time.
Not business, but scripture:
a camera is the death of memory.
And in his heart he counted out
a sack of garnets
all for me.
I froze, and an aperture opened beneath,
an eye, a bleed, a hand all wreathed in weeds,
He whistled down low, gravid with worms and seeds,
not with his lungs, but with mine:
Oh, girl, you oughta be in pictures.
Let him frame the scene for you—to witness is to agree.
A girl with hair
half black and half gold
A furrow of scalp dividing her,
half-owned and half-sold
and lightning in her instep,
and wheat-berries in her gaze
The death-god on the casting couch
with a face like Chaplin
and a heart like Hearst
bought her a pomegranate coupe
and a long black fur
bought her a starring role,
a wedding scene in negative:
bride in widow’s weeds, a veil of coal
and the groom so white his bones showed through
his grim-bright grin
a pantomime of bliss.
Of course the king of the dead
is the rich man’s rich man
gems splash his linen bed
In that lush ofﬁce
like a garden, green sofa/raucous
pink and ﬂoral walls,
all those family portraits in their heavy
and the leather deep as earth
and a pen dipped in fruitskin
I signed my name
to a sequel every season.
Did I want it all along?
Did I cry? Did I agree
to a nude scene or three?
Oh, I can read a studio contract
just as well as any California girl
the six-month option upfront
the language exact.
It’s just so dark
where the sun is a lamp
with a gold cello screen
the rain a rack of onyx pipes
never managing more than damp
and the camera shows me upside down
pre chymical process
and I barely move
and I don’t make a sound.
Persephone scrives her poems
in coffee stains,
verdigris’d nib sucking ink
out of a white clay mug.
on a pad of paper, faintly lined,
she presses too hard;
the page soaks with the queen’s dark roast:
Listen to it click and ﬂicker by,
the silvery gleam of it, the trumpet toot, the
the triﬂe before the main event,
a plague mouse, Apollo’s pride and joy,
steering the ship
up, up, up
from the black river at the bottom of the reel.
With his black ears open and empty as eyes
the devil on his steamboat
plays the white pigs of Aphrodite,
queen of starlets
like an oinking accordion,
pound those infant snouts in time,
pound those milking teats in time,
the rich mouse on his pleasure boat
squeezes the fat goose of Priapus
like a bagpipe,
honk and blast, spending air,
crush those hollow bones in time,
crush that velvet neck in time,
the bridegroom on his stygian steamboat
turns the goat’s tail-crank
and out comes the wedding march backward
singing not who gives this girl
but ashes to ashes;
print to film.
[Come on, boys, come down front.
Girls, too, she’s got skin enough for everyone.
The view is best down at dirt-level,
with the earthworms and the bluebirds and the little cherry flowers that say:
spring is coming up all over that girl.
The whole world is hard for her, and here she comes,
out from the wings, her dangling spangling dress just barely there,
pig-pink and sewn with bits of glass so that she’ll blind you
when she spins, our a time-lapse odalisque
a rainstorm getting y’all so wet you won’t dry out for years
a plum tree shedding all its dead, wrinkled bubonic purple petals at one whirl
a kid growing up so fast and pretty
you’ll think you were born for nothing else but to see her naked.
You’ll want to stay for the big reveal. When she takes her top off
it’s worth the nickel entrance, but when the skirt goes--
split our girl’s gymnastic legs and you’ll see
a brown-husked pomegranate crowning, just like a son.]
There’s a ladder down here.
He built it for me
and he cried the whole time.
When the dead cry
it looks like laughing.
Of course Hades
isn’t really dead.
Just shift boss
til the bell.
Still, after a couple of years
you’d never know that emperor
riddled with silkworms
isn’t a local boy.
Been awhile since
the kid with wings on his shoes
showed up to take me home
his face as scrubbed and wholesome
as an airline pilot
letting a shy little girl
touch the byzantine instrument panel
the green readouts
the black dials
the chthonic, hermetic displays
of arrows in glass.
I do it myself. The ladder
good pine and yew
covered in morbid
occult grafﬁti: pyramid
and spring mud dripping down
like Easter chocolate.
The stage direction says:
Stage right, kid. You gotta let 'em see ya cry.
I cry and I am the rain. The script
Up, now. Balloon-girl with a black string
drifting all the way down
to her husband
who in his cups and papers grumbles
that the industry rags only care
the It Girl,
the one with her face on the frieze.
Up, now. Clockgagged goddess
sweating celery seeds.
It never mattered if I wanted it.
You can’t choose what you’re good at
some of us are born
with the wobbly, bloody, knotty axis of a planet
wrapped around our necks. There were black roses
in the birthing room. A cut-jet vase.
It was always going to go this way.
I lift the hatch of the earth
ﬂat mud disc
like a grassy moon.
It’s still March, full dark.
I am in love
with the few sharp slices
of stubborn snow.
used to look like this.
I walk up the hill to
my mother’s sleeping house
every window open
to the scent of alfalfa
and snap peas.
In my footsteps
green limestone glows.
Persephone has been up all night.
She washes six months
of poems off her hands
into a sink the color of ash.
The pipes carry them
wherever they want to go.
In tough-room Elysium,
the reviews are only so-so.
Look at that girl
coming out of the ground
like a little cherry chapstick vampire
so clean she bleeds peach-juice.
She’s not me.
Persephone is a mathlete gymnast straight-A girl.
I’m more chess club
bookworm in the dark
down here in the school basement
all through summer break
knocking on the cellar ﬂoor
like it’s a door
that will ever let me in.
But that dyed-black Plath-hearted
iron-deﬁcient slip of a thing--
she’s not me either.
I’m just the fool on the ladder. Up and down, up
and down. Watch me go,
not death’s wife
I drag myself up poem by poem:
do the work, do it well,
use a No. 2 pencil
plaster your ladder with pages
and the work will save you
when no one else
will stick out their hand
to pull you back from death’s girlsack
by the hair.
Now the Sibyl of Cumae
ﬁnishes her tea
Girlfriend stubs out a hand-rolled
right on her naked knee.
She squints in the spotlight
in the white dust curling down. She never did
for a moment
the crowd even thinks she’s forgotten
All part of the show, part of the act--
and she opens the black Avernus of her voice.
You know why it’s called the limelight, kid?
They burned a stone, and in the dark
I didn’t want to die.
I just wanted them
to stop staring at me.
Born in the Pacific Northwest in 1979, Catherynne M. Valente
is the author of over a dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest
, the Orphan's Tales
, and crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Own Making
. She is the winner of the Tiptree Award, the Mythopoeic Award, the Rhysling Award, and the Lambda Award. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the Spectrum Award, and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award in 2007 and 2009 as well as the Hugo and Locus Awards in 2010. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with her partner and two dogs.
When asked to name what kind of mask would choose her, Cat replied as follows: "I had a dream once that I had a mask which was actually my head in the way of dreams — it was huge, the size of a small boat, made of red wood and carved with many representations of orca teeth and eyes and fins and bodies. A great fin protruded from the top and all over it hung strands of black flowers, rough metal, and dark red coral. That would be my mask."Back to Table of Contents