A knock on the door echoes through the Palace,
through my veiled head.
Five of the Sultan’s handmaidens enter,
dart around like swallows, ringing
my eyes with kohl before I can
blink, berry-staining my lips
before a sigh can escape.
I am one of 300 wives, no better
than an odalisque. Worse off
than the bougainvillea in the courtyard:
No kisses from the sun, only kisses from the Sultan
once a year. We all exist for King Mohammed
Ibn Yusef ben Nasr, maker of the Alhambra.
Locked behind iron gates, we can look out
from our honeycombed rooms, cannot see
each other, cannot be seen by soldiers passing,
by men at prayer. I stand for hours
at my window, no longer know where the lace
on my headdress begins, the lacy curl of iron ends.
I know only the poems of Ibn al-Yayyab.
I allow them to enter, learn to recite them
for the Sultan’s pleasure. When I read,
I hear no men drone, no women weep.
The handmaidens lead me out.
I will not cry when the Sultan’s rolling flesh
surrounds me. He will see my dark eyes
above the veil, cannot see beyond.
Deep inside, I’ll jump like a cat
from verse to verse, recline
amongst joyous images floating
like clouds above the sun.
Madeline Artenberg did photojournalism and street theatre before falling for poetry. Her work appears in publications, such as Rattle. She was semi-finalist in Margie, The American Journal of Poetry contest, and finalist in Mudfish 2020 contest. A poem was nominated as Best of the Net 2020 by Poets Wear Prada.