Priamo della Quercia. Illuminated manuscript, ca. 1440-1450. Detail of a miniature of Dante being rowed by Charon across the River Acheron, from the closing lines of Canto III in the Inferno. Source: the Public Domain Review.


My father gave me a small jar of honey
and each night I took a secret lick.
Long after the gold hardened to granule
my tongue returned to my mouth sweet.
Later he placed between my lips a sliver of peach
or a white pastille
dissolving down—homeopathic moon.
I kept my tongue clean beneath those gifts.

My tongue has since turned.
Sliding against the edges of men,
I wonder where that gold’s gotten to
and settle for a boy who tastes of copper,
who flaps like a whiskey-watered hawk
and scatters me.
I know you don’t mean it—I’d repeated,
until he refused me passage in his horror.
Empty anther. I wash him off with mint.
His sorrys fill my bed until I’m crowded out.
I count them like coin and at night they rattle.

We hope sounds will open our mouths
and force us into breath. I place a coin
across my tongue and practice dying.
In some cold places, the obol staves
return. My lips seal in the acerbic promise;
whole rivers run through me.
How can I know which boat to board—
I’m just trying to pay my way.

He removes the coin from my mouth
with his own hand. My sordid god.
But this is nothing new, this reaching into
and withdrawing. The truth is
I’d tongue the honey from most any hand
that granted me a crossing.

Madeleine Wattenberg

Madeleine Wattenberg studies poetry in the MFA program at George Mason University. She also holds an MA in English from the University of Cincinnati. Her work has appeared in The Louisville Review, Cactus Heart, and Gingerbread House.