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Theodora Ziolkowski

The Virgin Room

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The portrait of the Virgin loomed
over a writing desk stuffed with
stationary. Even when there was
no one to write to, everyone I knew

was in the kitchen, still up, talking.
I am a guest in this house of books,
where all the shelves perspire
as if drawn from the seas.
Like a good girl, I do

what I’m told. I write letters
to no one, tuck into bed.
The Virgin’s gaze is the
result of an arrangement

that’s already been made.
You can’t control what a mind
can do. And the Virgin would
know. She was a little girl, too.

Mary’s Child

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“The girl promised to be obedient, and when the Virgin Mary was gone, she began to examine the dwellings of the kingdom of heaven.”
— Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Trans. D. L. Ashliman

Here, vapor is for remedial purposes.
Have a cold?

Sniff this.
A headache?

You must get down on the ground
to be closer to God.

Fear not the exhaustion of peering
into faultless square rooms.

Q:         What is the matter with you?

A:         You are not safe
             and this heaven

             was never your home.

You must be tidy to inhabit tiny.
All the easier to inhabit a life

that is not your own.

At Third Glance

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At the British Museum,
the bill of the stuffed
platypus is polished like
a shoehorn.

I reach out my hand
as an offering
of peace or of
what —

I don’t know what.


In the tram, my coffee cup clatters on its saucer.

Age eighteen, my sister dyes her hair platinum.


Stuffed starlings hover above palms
in the shop window.

My sister breathes grease on the glass
as if she can’t get close enough.

As if there is something to hear.


My sister and I lie in the grass.
The poppies tower over our faces.

My sister finds a dog in the clouds.
A wolf, to be specific,
but all I see are swans.


In my lap, a postcard:
Guthrie’s “Hind’s Daughter”
standing in a patch
of plump cabbages
holding a knife.

Something has happened
to the print,
like it has been rained on.


On one side of her door,
my sister painted a tree,
a woman with red
hair on its reverse.

I realize my sister drifting
in and out of the tram
is not her

but a woman balancing
a tray filled with cake.
A flash of the freight,

at first glance my sister
mounts the back of a swan.

I press my face to the cold window,

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