The Poetry Project

At the End of History

Iris McCloughan

I spent so long believing words
could fix me.

One simple string of sounds
to tell me my official capacity:
how much and what
I could hold.

A word, tasted
and spat out quickly,
was supposed to show me
myself, and until recently,
I always lied, said
I could see my shape
in the buckshot scatter
of a pack of letters.

But now I mouth the word
apostate, tuck it in my cheek
for later. Now, I’d rather
the word I use to tell you
what I am be like
a one-eyed dealer
holding court at a table
in a shitty saloon.

I want the word to invite me to play
a variant of poker with a local name,
want him to loose the rules upon me
like a pack of dogs desperate
for petting. I want him
to wink at me and promise
he’ll hold my hand
as I get the hang of it.

I want him to lie
that he’ll go easy.

As I sit through round after round,
the rules change, sometimes the ace
of hearts meaning ruin and sometimes
meaning I’ll win to play another game.

Sometimes it’s best to have fewer cards,
sometimes the point is to get everything
in your hand. The one constant

is the queen of diamonds, looking sideways
from her frame with a knowing smile,
eternal sardonic comment softened
by her eyes. This queen isn’t me. I think.

I’m not a woman, but I’m not not either,
and she’s so good at holding my gaze
I never see what’s in her hand, can never
tell if it’s a rose or a dagger until
it’s too late, until I feel she’s my mother,
or maybe she is me, sometime in the future,

regal, terrible, laughing as she parts

what’s necessary

from every



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