Portrait of Lady with Cephalopod

This poem won First place in the 2017 2-Day Poem Contest

Is the girl in the daguerreotype

really staring down the unroofed eye 

of the black box in the honeycombed light 

 

of the studio, dank with elixir 

of bromine, iodine? Or does she turn

hers to glass, unhinged by the man 

 

standing behind her, his hand

a cephalopod suctioned to her shoulder, 

a handlebar mustache wax melting 

 

as he sweats out the pose. 

A brother? Husband? A foundling

fondling his way to respectability, 

 

starch in his livery—well-worn

costume of the copacetic? She’s staunch 

as a soldier, stippled ringlets a plumage 

 

of bombastic corkscrew and swirl. Somewhere 

in the folds of a velvet frock, in the intake

of breath, before the photographer 

 

will have absquatulated into terra cotta dusk

to alchemize her discomfort into 

image, engraved on silvered copper 

 

plate, she feels herself reduced 

to outline. Will she bunk with him 

later, the man who comes out from 

 

behind her, waiting for the right moment to thrust 

his life into her hands, exhume a sliver 

of ragged Victorian sigh, clasp 

 

a gilded hand to his breast. Does she take flight 

into the phantom bones of her corsetry, 

feign to enjoy or not to enjoy? She knows 

 

this thing they call desire begets 

something resembling want, resembling need. 

Crushes in her fists what stirs, opens 

 

its small mouth for food.

Published online July 13 2017.

This poem was a winner in CV2’s annual 2-Day Poem Contest. Every April, CV2 challenges players to create a new original poem that uses all 10 words of our choosing. It’s poetry under pressure for prizes, publication, and personal bests. Learn how to sign up for the next 2-Day Poem Contest.