at Length

Persephone, Engaged

—Maya Phillips

And so the contract:        Agree
to disagree—no matter, now,
it’s in words,
in dirt,
in the compromise
of the heavens,                 in the promise
of the river Styx,                in the palm-

press of her mother’s hand
against his
as they shake the field around them

Immediately the stares:

the sick, the wounded,
the elderly, the never-born, the still-
born, the heroes, the slaughtered,
the monsters, the beasts, and
the children, bodies slackened
with time and rot—

they all lean in, watching,
as he leads her

and, daughter of earth
and sky, what else can she do

but hold her chin up like a torch through
the tunnel, the sun at her back like his
hand guiding her, bracing her, his lips at her
ear saying,

“It’s your breathing,” and so

she holds her breath

for 1  2   3   4    5 —

until in the darkness she loses count.

No one knows what to make of this,
the tissue and garland, tiny treats
and teas,

and she, like the eye
of the storm around her, seeing:


—aunts, mothers—

smiling with toothlessmouths, throwing rice, and offering
her tokens—a pile of dirty gold
coins at her feet

(wealthy queen!)

and they applaud and dance
in the dirt, the thunder like
birds   falling
from the sky.

And then someone said, not
her, maybe he, that should
something happen
(though what
something, when this is every
thing, all possible things already
happening, things she cannot

he would followher to the skies, to
the seas, to the ends
of the earth,

yes, butwhat now, now that

She is to hear their pleas first, the recently dead,
who’ve come to realize what this means, so,
their queen, she is to be sympathetic, comforting;

She has a way with them, he says,
They love their queen,

but the way they plead, for their lovers, their
Just one more year,
a week,
a day;
they’ll make it worth it;

they just have this
one thing to say,
they didn’t get to say
before they — — and now
won’t she help?

please understand; they remember
all of it, and it hurts
—no one said it would hurt—

can she heal them?
resurrect them?

can she send their family a message?
just   this once?

can she give them what they were
just a little
can she take
what’s left of them
(is this all that’s left of them?)?

can she touch them at all?

and she says,                                 It’ll get better,
even though it won’t, because
better is for the living,
so she says,

No, she won’t forget you or
It’s ok that you left the door unlocked
and the dog unfed
or Yes, you’re still
beautiful, even now,

and then finally,                I’m sorry—
she says it like a chant—
I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry until for days it’s all
she can say
I’m sorry I’m sorryfor months
I’m sorryin the mornings
in the evenings
in her bed, before
sleep, whispering                          I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry

and he says,                                 For what?

but she has nothing to say.

He’d have her
dance among oleander
and sweetbrier roses,

she’s sure, she knows

he waits for her
surrender in the halls,
the chambers,
the forests,
in the fields,

where he lays blanched bouquets in her
lap, each flower ailing, bowing, hunched
toward the ground—

but what evening primrose,
what night jessamine is she,

No,          she’d sooner be kin
of fire.

And so she’ll let herself burn
to steal herself back.

Just watch—watch her scorch
this everything, this all-  dead    earth.

Yes, for Eurydice,but for her too,                     this
song, beyond life anddeath, too,            who leans into
the sound and cries andloves
as the song says to,suddenly, with softness,
with life, with his handreaching for hers, holding

and the song’s the soundof her mother calling
her name in the morning
on the first days of spring

and the wind touslingleaves just outside
the window

and every new,untouched thing stretching
out, growing into its form until

into another,

and she has
never felt so half-
baked and haphazard,

and though the song says,            Poor soul,
won’t you give yourself

she is not so easily

though he grips her hand with the firmness
of the inevitable, she will notbe easily

but she’ll cryfor the sport of it, poor she,
and they’ll let the boy go
with a task simple and
Lead her soul back,
she will tell him, this

hero, this
husband, whose
head already turns

She can appreciate a good knot,

such as when she played
in the forest as a child, and her hair,
like a hunger, grabbed everything
it passed until it was its own
forest of branches, petals,
and leaves, and in the evening,
as her mother picked through
it, every so often, a “good knot,”
sturdy, worthy of an old sailor, his
wizened hands,

but now,each strand tamed, neatly
plaited and pinned up
to her scalp, as is appropriate
for a queen,
even a queen of her

who has scores of dead fingers to comb through
her, to deforest,
bun and braid,
to up-do,

so everything’s in
its place, everything’s
perfect, immovable,

untilthe evening, in their chamber,
when it all must come


and he, himself, parts

uncomplicates her,

a good knot in her stomach, good
knot below,          there,       below,

thoughhe won’t keep it

for he will resolve
her, all of her,
there,      below,

for his own, and she
will lie
still as moss
on a tree, she will be

At least perhaps something good
can come of this
, her mother says
in the summer, as they gather
the fruit they’ve picked.

She squeezes a peach,
testing its ripeness.

It’s unsavory,
I know, and perhaps not even
possible, given the circumstances,
but, you know, these things
are important.

The basket of cherries
sits between them like an unopened
gift. A cherry blackfly perches on
the cherry closest to her—she
could catch it between her
fingertips if she wanted.

We must remember—we must
always remember—our importance,

her mother says, picking
a cherry nearly blackened
with ripeness, plucking
off the stem, spitting out
the pit.

He takes her to the end of every-
thing, to the place where cold stars, still
dying, hang low like ripe fruit from the sky,
where the air stalls, stale, thick as ice, before
their mouths, and even the edges
of her (toes, fingertips, the ends
of her hair) blister and harden and chap.

It is here where he gives it to her, the black
diamond like the heart of it all, black,
unforgivably opaque,
but still, the beautyof it, how can she admire such a thing, how
can she accept such a gift, here, where she, where
the world, is dying billions of times over—
what beauty, amongst this, can this be?

And he says I love you like the moon says
to the sun as they pass each other in the sky, and she
tries the word, love, and again, love, though it chips
at the touch, though it falls, a rock at their feet.

Maya Phillips was born and raised in New York. Maya received her MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in At Length, BOAAT, The Gettysburg Review, Ghost Proposal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Vinyl, and more, and her arts & entertainment journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Vulture, American Theatre, and more. Her debut poetry collection, Erou, is forthcoming in fall 2019 from Four Way Books. Maya currently works as the associate content editor & producer at the Academy of American Poets and as a freelance writer. She lives in Brooklyn.