Stone Telling

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by C.W. Johnson

Mother and Auntie live in an underground
cistern. Their husbands selfishly died
as heroes. No work for widows, and war
made widows in surplus. Bodies cheaper
than stone, they hired out as pillars to
the city. Men with plans carved
the cistern, but they forgot water licks
away limestone columns. Women's bodies
are easy to replace. Down in the veiling
dark their bodies wrap around each other
like snakes, and the lucky ones have faces
above water.

Men worried into their beards
about pollution: widows might piss
in the cistern, or pass monthly blood,
or have unclean feelings (all those
bodies touching). In the end economics
won, the women stayed, weight of city
pressed down, flesh metamorphosed
to stone.

The cistern used to echo with arguments:
who had a worse life, whose children
were most ungrateful. Now Mother
stares like a statue. She never swallows
the air I bring mouthful by mouthful,
never asks when I will marry, never
begs me to give her grandsons. All
is silent

but for the clap of wave against
wall, the slow applause of water for
our sacrifice.

C.W. Johnson's poem was inspired by a visit to the historic Basilica Cistern in Istanbul. Before that, Johnson's poetry won competitive slams (nuclear astrophysics division) in bars in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  There is likely more to tell, but that is another poem. Call now to demand it--editors are standing by.

Read C.W.'s discussion of this poem at the Roundtable!

Photography: modified from Underworld (Medusa in the cistern beneath Istanbul), by Subrime.