Persephone, Engaged

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 toothless
mouths, 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 follow
her to the skies, to
the seas, to the ends
of the earth,

                                            yes, but
what 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 sorry
for months
                                                            I’m sorry
in 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 and
death, too,            who leans into
                 the sound and cries and
                                                   as the song says to,
suddenly, with softness,
                  with life, with his hand
reaching for hers, holding

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

                                                   and the wind tousling
                                  leaves 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 not
be easily

                          but she’ll cry
for 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,

the 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,

he 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.


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