Portrait of Lady with Cephalopod

This poem won First place in 2-Day Poem Contest 2017

Is the girl in the daguerreotype

really staring down the unroofed eye 

of the black box in the honeycombed light 


of the studio, dank with elixir 

of bromine, iodine? Or does she turn

hers to glass, unhinged by the man 


standing behind her, his hand

a cephalopod suctioned to her shoulder, 

a handlebar mustache wax melting 


as he sweats out the pose. 

A brother? Husband? A foundling

fondling his way to respectability, 


starch in his livery—well-worn

costume of the copacetic? She’s staunch 

as a soldier, stippled ringlets a plumage 


of bombastic corkscrew and swirl. Somewhere 

in the folds of a velvet frock, in the intake

of breath, before the photographer 


will have absquatulated into terra cotta dusk

to alchemize her discomfort into 

image, engraved on silvered copper 


plate, she feels herself reduced 

to outline. Will she bunk with him 

later, the man who comes out from 


behind her, waiting for the right moment to thrust 

his life into her hands, exhume a sliver 

of ragged Victorian sigh, clasp 


a gilded hand to his breast. Does she take flight 

into the phantom bones of her corsetry, 

feign to enjoy or not to enjoy? She knows 


this thing they call desire begets 

something resembling want, resembling need. 

Crushes in her fists what stirs, opens 


its small mouth for food.