Claire Hero



Always it's Sunday, Mother offering herself
to the oven's dark maw, Father vanishing into the wallpaper.

Outside, it's bric-a-brac houses on Knickknack Street.
Inside, the enormous table, dinner a trophy for our ruleless games.

I keep the score. Mother's nose, father's spine, aunt so-and-so's
fashionable genes: someone needs to carry these into the next century.

Someone needs to hide the trash, tidy the bed,
someone needs to fasten all the doors. Otherwise, who knows

what can enter? Why, just think what used to swing in our family tree!
A travesty! Let's stick to what we know. And if there's a gap

in the back row, a missing frame in the reel-to-reel?
"Change is relative," says Aunt Gert. "Relatives change."

(True, model families are ever malleable. Consider children:
in a crowded room, any hand is a mother.)

Outside, we are little-black-dress, obligatory brown shoe.
Inside, the body's a staircase we all walk down,

traipsing into the cellar where the eggs lie
swaddled in waterglass, ladies-in-waiting.

In the book of tomorrow's towns, these girls grin
on every page. Even now,

in this house of continuous dismantling,
their faces loom in every window, leer in every mirror.



After paintings by Balthus

A plain girl is a secret. A very plain girl is Susan.
That's she. We are a giantess. Imp.
We're fourteen and changing. We're almost.

Sometimes we're three. Sometimes we're she-
who-must-be-obeyed. Who? Sometimes we're

And? And will we become?
We become. And who? We're something and changing
into more trifle than trollop what? A crush

of brown plush? A bowl of wax fruit?
A Skirt? A Doll? And will we?
Do we grow? You revolt.

We have apparatuses. We've limbs.
For years they lived in far countries, eating the streets, and now
they've returned. Hello, husband. Hello, wife.

Goodbye, milktooth. Adios, grin.
Oh! But one of us chose the wallflower.
She's she. She's nobody's, Sister.



On "The Living Room": In a Balthus painting by the same name [1941-1943], I was surprised to discover a third, shadowy girl seated on a piano bench, watching the two other girls. This third girl is almost completely erased from the painting except the palimpsest of her legs. Her absence troubled me, and I wished to write her back into the painting.

On "Inheritance": In a recent conversation an older, British colleague told me that during the second World War, his mother preserved her ration of raw eggs in a pail in the cellar, suspended in a substance called waterglass, a substance the color and consistency of white paint. That detail, combined with hosting my family in New Zealand for two weeks, put the poem into motion.