by Irene Hsu
Issue: Ricercari (Summer 2012)

Henri Sanson, executioner

She was supposed to be a cake
frosted and piped with pearls,
rosettes, spun with silk.

But that day, she was small,
shoved through mothers
who clutched their children
and shook their fingers at her
chopped hair, a stiff crown
against a stiff silhouette.

As she neared, I felt
for a moment the stab
of her heel on my toes,
heard, for a moment,
Excusez-moi, monsieur,
I did not mean it,

before the crowd swallowed it
and I looked away to do
what had already been done.

Maria Carolina, sister

They put me in bed after
my husband told me.
And when I awoke, I thought

you were meditating
at the foot of my bed,
clutching a stalk of lily,

balancing a tart on each knee—
one for you, one for me,
you said, stretching towards me

for an eternity, frozen
as though I would never have to leave
and become queen. As though

our happiness would not have to be sealed, labeled
in slanted calligraphy, and sent off
once a month, in crisp envelopes.

It seemed like it would never end,
those days of tearing our dresses,
weaving crowns with leaves,

slipping into your room,
dodging Mother, who said
we were worse as a pair.

In my head, that’s all there was:
white, papery days creasing
endlessly in folds.

Maria Theresa, mother

I was ashamed
not of your imperfect smile
not of your imperfect French

but of this waste—
the way you spun your days
like yarn in long, useless strands

and wrapped them around your finger.
If I had a son for every time
I told you to put in a little more,

I would have enough men
to run all of Europe. Instead
I had you, tangled and torn

for me to yank the comb
through your hair.

Madame Adélaide, sister-in-law

The night before she arrived
I dreamt that she had set fire to the palace.
We were trapped in the parlor,

shrieking like fallen trees,
the smoke rising in thick braids.
I awoke cold and damp with sweat.

Was it real? In the morning, I watched
her carriage float in, and at the gate
the crowd reached for her, a pulse
before she slipped out

into a throbbing mass of hysterical
people—they screamed
for her, their porcelain doll.
She turned—and then I couldn’t help

but smile to see the blotch
on her neck, as if God had denoted
where the blade should fall.

Pierre Laveran, dentist

No string of pearls, those straggling teeth
that jutted and lodged in two rows,
an emergency, her mother agreed. Each time,

I jerked gold wires over
and over around her
cobblestone teeth

until they hung straight,
tugging each square for three months.
And each time I left, no gratitude—

I only heard her crying
for mercy. By the last day
all thirty-two saluted me,

neat ranks gleaming in white
before she tucked them
all away behind her lips.

Jean-Georges Noverre, dance teacher

They loved her
when she danced, and

gawked, as if she were
some sort of goddess,
skirts swelling,

and twirling around her
as she spun from tile
to tile, caught

in a wind of motions,
and as the music
dwindled into silence,

she hovered, like
a drop of dew, before
dipping into applause.

They said she was lazy,
but she did not show it
when she danced, always
sweeping her arms
and shifting from toe to toe,
unfolding herself limb by limb.

Before I arrived, she
If she was lazy, she did not show it
when she danced. Before I arrived,
she would be lacing her shoes,

or sweeping her arms
and shifting from toe to toe.
And when she danced,

her skirts would swell around
her, like petals ruffling
in the wind. She rose

and spun from tile to tile,
and as the music
dwindled into silence,

she hovered, like the last
drop of dew, before dipping
into applause.

Louis XVI, husband

I thought that we would
finally be in love, you
and I, spending

days in the garden, your fingers
dipping macarons in steaming tea,
and offering them to our children

who tug at your skirts
and clamber up your chair.
Is this what love is? I’ve asked

that our bodies be buried
side by side under a peach tree
so that as long as day fades to night

our souls will watch
the blossoms swell into fruit,
not this—this cold cell

that reminds me
of the emptiness, expanding
endlessly from the walls.