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Trees Against the Sky

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My father never had the sailor's art
Of careful stitching, or the patience for
An hour's toil, pushing thread through cloth
That slowly came together in a seam —
The sort of thing that women do, in Naples.
He'd spend much more than that in sitting, reading,
Collecting plants and studying the stars,
Drawing a magic pattern on the ground,
Then in a wink, with words achieve his will.
The clothes Gonzalo gave us (fine enough,
But suiting ill a girl grown out of swaddling)
He'd change as I grew taller, mend the holes
Torn in the knees by rocks, or sleeves by thorns,
Without a needle. Father-mother-nurse,
He showed me how — when I was old enough,
And needed more than will-o'-wisps and lights
Or climbing trees to fill my waking hours —
To move my hands, without a staff or books,
And knit the fabric like a healing wound,
Or join two pieces in a seamless whole.
This was a minor art to him who called
Storms from the deep, and spirits from the air.
Donata laughed, and said, were I not Queen,
I'd make a handy living as a tailor.
She was the first I met of womankind —
Not yet the first I saw, in Italy,
Walking the quayside, crying out their wares,
Or from the window, cheering in the streets,
As in our carriage Ferdinand and I
Approached the palace (never in my life
Had I imagined such a sea of people)
But still the first I spoke with. She laughed then,
Too, to meet the princess from the sea,
And hear her speak Italian. Soon the rest,
The Annas, Filumenas, and Rosauras,
Would follow, all in rich embroidered gowns
Beyond my skill, cut in the latest fashions
That never reached our island. Now we'll spend
An afternoon in sewing, hearing music
From one youth with a lute, no airy chorus,
And gossiping of this and that. It's strange
For all this to take time; but I can learn.

I ride out hunting, now I've learned to ride,
A falcon on my fist, the horse's reins
Held by a squire on foot, about my age.
Even outside the city, in the woods,
I'll smell the salt air from the bay, and hear
(I think) the cries of gulls, and close my eyes,
Remembering our isle. On foot, I'd weave
Through ancient trees my father knew by name,
All gnarled and knotted, some with roots that sank
Deep down into the rock, and some that grew
In tangled nests along the water's edge,
To chase a hare or velvet-coated deer
From near my father's cell, across the sands
To where the headland overlooked the sea.
The birds that flew up to my ungloved hand,
Their cruel beaks strangely colored, now I think
Were spirits; mayhap I had even seen them
As butterflies, or waves upon the sea.
Here I have my favorite hawks and hounds,
And lords and ladies both will often wonder
At how I tamed the wildest to my hand.
I tell them I have known hawks wilder still;
Not in Milan, though once the French Ambassador,
Who joined us on the hunt, and knew whose child
The Prince had married, asked me, most polite,
If hawks were wilder in the north of Italy.
I sometimes wish to spare them their sad charge,
To make my greyhounds lapdogs; is that cruel?
Perhaps. To be a Queen is bloody work.

I play chess with the ladies of the court,
My husband or his friends, my father-in-law.
Sometimes I lose, of course (Alonso smiles,
And taps beside his nose; Rosaura bows;
My Ferdinand reclaims the kiss he forfeited
When last he lost to me) but even then
I understand the reason why my father
Brought down the board and chessmen to the strand —
The ivory pieces not as bleached as bones
Of strange sea-creatures washed up on the shore —
Or played with me by firelight in his cell.
I liked it well enough, but half the game
(Or more) was guessing when he let me win.
In this, though he could be no dancing-master
Or music tutor, teach me to play at ball,
The pastimes or accomplishments Court asks,
I learned, unlearning, how to be a lady.
Each year at summer's height, we visit Milan.
The mountains in the distance seem to mark
The edges of the world, as once the waves,
Snow-capped in miniature, encompassed mine.
The first time that I made the journey north,
When Italy already felt immeasurable,
Alonso told me that beyond the Alps
Lay other lands, more different by far
From Italy, than Milan was from Naples,
And further north again (I swore he lied)
Countries of snow and ice, where whiskered men
Wore furs from head to toe, and went by sleigh.
It is as strange to see my father here,
Far from our isle, in ermine robes of state,
As 'twould be in such lands. We play again,
And wager fairy kingdoms, memories.
I lose, and tell him of the sunken cave
Where as a girl, I'd hoard my favorite stones;
He tells me about Ariel. Closer, grander
Than all his other secrets; this, the last,
I'll never know the half of, maugre how
He lets me win, for he can only stake
The share he holds. And when I have this part
Of my inheritance, I'll be the prince
Of Milan, too; it is my father's will.

No longer second nature are the shapes
I'd make with hands in the air. Though not renouncing,
And drowning all my knowledge in the sea,
I have no need for household management
When servants clean my clothes and cook our food;
And for a wedding gift, or for a birth-day,
A bauble or a posy, strangely knit,
As rare as 'tis, still seems far less sincere
Than any sonnet could, whose words betray
My mind and thoughts, the time and pains I take,
As when I taught, so many years ago,
Our language to the brutish Caliban.
Adviser, mediator, poetess,
Mine own art is in words, but not in spells
In tongues foreign to Italians or to men.
A girl, or Queen; in words, I'm home again.