Shelley Puhak

Four Poems in Response to “Mary Stuart”

Guinevere, Facing Forty in Baltimore, Writes to Lancelot

Mary Stuart, c. 1559

Painting of Mary Stuart, c. 1559

Turn it all off. Light a candle to read this
and then unplug the toaster, unhitch
the cable, the WiFi, break the heart

of every circuit, shut it all down.
The king’s satellites are circling,
tracking our ambling hearts even here—

not upon stacked Belgian block but
earlier, actual cobblestones. And
the king’s satellites are neither hungry

nor lonely. They won’t scratch and scratch
until they scab. But dear, how I itch
electric. So I’m on my way, tripping

cobblestones, each ridged like a hipbone.
I imagine them pitched at my head.
Not the crack when they connect

but the wind when they miss. Adulteress.
Love, his satellites are circling, his cell
towers are triangulating. So don’t call.

And burn this. Then blow the candle
out and wait. Wear your armor.
What’s a little extra weight?


The Manor Maids Petition Their Lord

Forbeare to charge women with Faults which come from the Contagion of Masculine Serpents
—Ester Sowernam, The Arraignment of Women, 1617

We tend table, keep knives
angled, napkins folded, just so.
You crack quail eggs, suck

marrow, slap table and hiss
of our sisters: Lewd,
Inconstant, Over-Fleshy.

In the scullery, we press poultice
and siphon this Venom,
becoming as underground ether,

lighter than Luchre but more
patina’s. Only our mistress’
chevel-glass reflects us back.

Recall that you were cast out
of a Garden. We grow one within.
We scrub up while its ivy twines

our cartilage. Listen to the rustle
of trees growing. The wind through
columbine and rue. Our Lord, quit

your Slither. Gentle Man, come back
to bed. Lie here and stretch
upward, kiss the Figs of our wrists.


Guinevere, Fancying Herself a Wanton Microbiologist

This honeybee.
A fly lays an egg in its
abdomen (how? the literature isn’t
specific). Three nights later
that poor parasitized bee slips out
of the hive, compelled to strange light.
Fly larvae spill out as the bee dies
trying to nuzzle a porchlight.

This mouse.
The protozoa lost in its
mouth (how? how should I know?)
would rather live in the gut of a cat.
So it convinces the mouse to saunter
right up to a cat. Snap.

Just as a parasite in the right
brain of the wrong woman (how?
she’s stuck cleaning the litter box!)
compels: leave the engine running,
walk the razor’s edge.

This girl—
just a slip, a shadow,
when she first stole
across the courtyard to meet you.

And so: I edged off the ledge of
the castle walls. Compelled.

Mary Queen of Scots, tomb effigy from Westminster Abbey

Mary Queen of Scots, tomb effigy from Westminster Abbey

Guinevere, to All of Her Unborns

The river’s tent is not broken, but bent
enough to leave you exposed,
my sweets, clustered on the shore of my pulse,
the wet clutch of my muscle.

Why I can’t bring you indoors:
I carry the gene that makes
one susceptible to rain. There isn’t enough
oxytocin to go round.

The dolorous stroke is wrenching out
a rib to make another.
And the wound that won’t heal: women.
The story they keep telling:

that I am waiting to be sought.
That my men wander
but I am lost in the cemetery where I went
one violet hour to sneak a cigarette

and startled a deer. A doe who darted
into traffic. Her fawn
followed suit. River and current: one drags
the other along. Just as this land was never

my land: not my dust clouds rolling.
I hardly know my own mother
tongue. They say the moon borrows its brilliance,
offers no light of its own. They say my river

runs soft, runs softly. Keep clinging to its bank,
my sweets. When I make my own map
of the world, I’ll sketch this shore, your pebbled
forms, in ochre and animal blood.


All poems originally appeared in Shelley Puhak’s Guinevere in Baltimore, The Waywiser Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission from The Waywiser Press.



Shelley Puhak was born in DC and now lives in Baltimore. Puhak is the author of two poetry collections, the more recent of which, Guinevere in Baltimore (Waywiser Press, 2013) was selected by Charles Simic for the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. Her poems have recently appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Missouri Review, North American Review, and Verse Daily. Her essays have recently appeared in Black Warrior Review, Creative Nonfiction, and Columbia.