Three poems by Athena Kildegaard

The Silver Road

Silver in padlocked coffers and chests,
filigreed caskets, clay pots,
all lashed to carts pulled by oxen,
pulled south along the Camino Real,
the Camino de Plata, from Zacatecas
and Fresnillo and Guanajuato
through Sombrerete, Nombre de Dios,
Avino, all the way to Veracruz,
to the caravels lashed but leaning toward Spain.

A sixteenth century map shows
the Royal Road winding past grazing bulls
and three-pronged cactus, the perspective
askew, as if you’re looking down from clouds.
But the bulls, the cactus, the laden carts
and horse guards with heavy weapons,
even the chichimecas waiting with their bows
and arrows stand parallel to the sky.
There is no other way to show fear and wealth.

At the harbor a clerical representative
of the Inquisition looked into every book. His man
stood by to brand the pages. Other men traded
scalps for coin, the coin reassurance to those
who disembarked, stories of land boiling with savages
in their heads, myths of streets and people veneered
in gold in their heads, letters sealed by the king’s wax
tucked into billfolds, promises of wealth and power
buried almost by fear of drought and contagion
and death at the hands of men who ate beetles and prayed
to no christian god.

Stevedores unloaded olive oil in glass jugs,
spices, missals, Holland linen, mercury,
compasses, perfumes, goat cheese, lutes.
Carmelite nuns and Franciscans with their vials
of holy water carried in cotton from the mother church,
scientists, charlatans, merchants with their wives
and offspring, artisans, whores, soldiers, marched
from deck to land. The trip north to Zacatecas
took six months, days of waiting on dim patios
for fresh horses, of sleeping on straw and eating cactus
preserved in vinegar, of watching the dismal parade
of poor and refugee, gambler, diseased, who told tales
of robbery and palaces built around springs, of shipwrecks
and silver, so much silver all Spain could rise on bullion
and those at the top would never see the earth, the soil,
the reapers with their sharpened scythes.

The trip took six months if you didn’t surrender
or turn back or lie down in a cave gnawed
by visions of what you’d seen and what was to come,
your skin itching, the taste of silver you’d once had
under your tongue leached away and the hunger with it.


The train's whine carries
across bluestem, tree frog
ratcheting itself for love,
beyond pelican preening
on boulder exposed 
in the current—
it's gone. Then I miss it,
long for its Eb melancholy,
the way it routed itself
through me.
                        I miss the drone
of prairie hoarding all sounds
heard and unheard, feathers
tacking windward, beak angling
to water slur, to tree frogs
urgent, grass sloughing.
I miss the way it swept up
train whistle, bee, and splash.

Lucian Freud at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

On the west side of the Øresund, just south of Hamlet’s castle—
Kronborg—where Danish kings demanded obeisance in the form
of tolls and bowed masts, the closest thing to prostration
on the water, the museum commands a plain view across the sound.

We looked at a portrait of a man in a suit who held his straight-
backed chair in a vise grip. We looked at a naked woman
lying across a bed, almost tilting off, her various parts—knees,
tits, shoulder—like apricots tumbling across a bumped table,

but not quite falling off. And then we came to a portrait of a friend,
a large man with muscular calves. No duty or compulsion. He stood
in a corner, he’s so annoying, on a veneered refectory table,
though instead of bronze, gray oil, and instead of a table, he bores

me stiff, a tall box, so that we looked up at him, at his pudgy stomach
fringed in dark hair, at his oddly small head, though not really, it was
the perspective, now I can afford to lose, at his cock angled and pointing
in the direction the man does not look. I used to find death. His feet

are crossed. He could fall off. What would we do? There we’d be
with a large naked man lying at our feet. Daydream. Help him up,
grab his clammy hand, wait for him to balance on one knee and push up,
his belly wriggling a little, his gray cock pointing. When I was younger

I had more to lose. The postcard of the pointing man I bought and stuck
above my desk. Compulsion, yes. Duty, no. I like to look at his belly.
It could be mine. It looks better from back here. We left the Louisiana
and drove north to our rented room on the sound to lie still in the dusk.

(The italicized words come from an article by Merope Mills about Freud that
appeared in The Guardian, September 22, 2011)

About the author

Athena Kildegaard's sixth book of poetry, Prairie Midden, is forthcoming from Tinderbox Editions. Her poetry has recently appeared in Prairie Schooner, december, Beloit Poetry…

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Issue 21 · October 2014

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