A chocolate-bartering devil skims
into the Halloween party uninvited
& undeterred. I think: that man
will pluck something from me.
Granite counters, laminate floors,
ten guys named Steve who only
talk to each other. Me doing
my best Sally Bowles act again—
Wearing little more than a wig,
a tuxedo vest & a good sweat,
I catch my silvered reflection
in the open fridge and wince.
Michigan winter comes, too,
blowing its preseason shave ice
all over the windows, dropping
off its slush pile in the dark hall.
I go downstairs for a cigarette
with some moll brandishing
a cardboard machine gun
encrusted in black glitter.
It immediately flies away—
flic-flacs down the street sanded
over in cold, diamante white.
We can’t tell where the smoke ends
& our breath begins. But here he is:
the chocolate-bartering devil,
who slides down the banister
& out into the night to pitch me.
What worries me is not that
I sell my soul to Beelzebub
at a Halloween party, but how
hard I barter for it: scripting
the terms with a red Sharpie
he’s got hanging from his horn—
scanning for loopholes, soldering
them shut with faux legalese.
After I sign, he snatches his ledger.
Thank you for doing business, he says,
crossing my palm with no less than
I expect: a gold-foiled Godiva rose.
He slides on his soles down the
new-snowed street. The moll & I,
nipples hard as bullets & mouths
full of chocolate, reascend the loft.
At midnight I win “Sluttiest Costume.”
I try to explain Weimar Berlin, but during
my victory dance, ten guys named Steve
keep strangling me with my own boa.
“The phonaesthetics of Cellar Door, regardless of semantics…” begins the poetry professor we’re all crushing on hard, who hovers lustily over these linguistic deep-tracks with a little smirk like none of us has seen Donnie Darko, as if he, bare-handed, built the traditional Romanian farmhouse and its slanted semantic trap “spare in clusters, full of liquids.” It’s tempting to eroticize the automaton, to resuscitate that old word-machine, bleeding capital into the Speakeasy of Language: “Look down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door, and we’ll be jolly friends forever more, more, one-two-three-four shut the door.” If Romantics persist, so must cellars, and snaking lines of poets at their doors, velvet ropes, burlap sacks for the sensual vocabulary sold there, big barrels of words—both Latinate and Anglo Saxon—scoops stuck in them. What would you like? Three blackberries, whirr, wax cylinder, oleander, floss, cacophonous horde spangled in swallows, ripe fig wallowing in a limpid pool, mélange of moss, palmful of snark. Take my favorite word for instance: austere. It does not mean what it should—a cool blonde baroness from Vienna. The best words always lie and are likewise more expensive than the rest: vermillion, dearth, crepuscular, droll, nonplussed, flush, scurrilous, chartreuse, yardarm, hoi polloi. Here is my sack full of fragrant manure. Here I am in line at the cellar door. Consider the following words carefully: speak, easy. Watch me spit my password in my palm, see me smear it across the lintel and load up my word sack to squander again, like Death can’t read what I write about her, can’t even find my damn farmhouse on a map, so blinded by my song and austerity.
Karyna McGlynn is the author of Hothouse (Sarabande Books 2017), I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl (Sarabande Books 2009), and three chapbooks: The 9-Day Queen Gets Lost on Her Way to the Execution (Willow Springs Editions 2016), Alabama Steve (Sundress 2014), and Scorpionica (New Michigan Press 2007). Her poems have recently appeared in The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review, AGNI, and The Academy of American Poet’s Poem-A-Day. Karyna’s honors include the Hopwood Award, the Verlaine Prize, and the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry. She recently received her PhD from the University of Houston, where she was the Managing Editor of Gulf Coast. She is currently the Diane Middlebrook Fellow in Poetry at the University of Wisconsin where she serves as the Senior Poetry Editor for Devil’s Lake.