For Lori Ayotte
We visited in summer beneath the kind of Yorkshire
Skies that have white clouds scampering like frisky sheep.
But somehow, there in the front yard strewn with
Tombstones like row upon row of snaggly teeth
It is always late fall. The wind tears the leaves
From the tree limbs and locks of hair from the women’s
Bent heads. Shawls tightly clutched, they toil up
The hill from the church toward the darkened house
A slow ascent like a line of nuns to prayer.
We stood, you and I, and looked into that tiny
Room, you with your burdens and I with mine
The failures of love and marriage weighing on us
Even as we made our pilgrimage, the tears in our eyes
As much for our own losses as for theirs.
We imagined them there, Charlotte at the window
Turning back into the silent room, her two sisters already
Intent on their work.
The clock in the hall ticks loudly, and the sound
Of quills against rough paper resonates in the room
Like the sound of tiny insects rustling through leaves.
She’s worried about the cost of paper, of ink.
She can smell the faint musk of her sister’s menses
And feels an answering ache in her own body.
It will be soon. But what is more palpable even now
Is the grip of their desire, those three
Indomitable women, who knowing no better
Dreamed into being the incarnation of a man
The man they had no access to amid the poverty
And leagues of the unlettered whom
They passed with polite nods, or polite inquiries
About family, men they nonetheless called
Into being by the sheer force of their wanting
Scratched out line by line in silence with only
The drafty room and smoking fire for
Consolation. Men they would never meet
In this world. How many young girls’ hearts
Like yours and mine flickered into flame
As we read? How many closed their eyes
As they held the book, hands resting
Lightly on the soft skin of the page
And whispered, yes, oh, yes as we once did?
Was it, I wonder now, their gift or their curse
They passed on to us? Were we made somehow
Unfit, as they proved unfit, for life in the world
As we know it? Should we have come not to praise
Them, but to curse them, offering not flowers
On their graves, but pouring on them
The ashes of our dreams of happy marriage
And husbands only our kind of women dream of?
Kristine Chalifoux received her MFA from Columbia University. Her chapbook, In This Light, won the 1999 West Town Press prize. Her poems have appeared in a number of literary magazines, including The Brooklyn Review, The Antioch Review, and Janus Head. She currently resides in North Carolina with her magical daughter, Ktimene.