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Claire Millikin

Solitary Confinement Villanelle

They only want to teach you what cannot be taught.

In the small room of endless winter light,

solitary confinement for the fourteen-year-old truant

who ran away from home and starves herself.

They bring you meals heavy with salt,

trying to teach you what cannot be taught,

they want you to learn the limits of thought,

hour after hour alone behind the lock.

Solitary confinement for the fourteen-year-old truant

who learns the winter light inside herself.

Understanding that they fear her, she keeps silent.

They only want to teach what cannot be taught,

teach her that she has no choice, she must at last say yes

to the one who wants to touch, to the mother who won’t look.

Solitary confinement for the fourteen-year-old truant

who waits it out, eating just enough to stay alive,

waiting for someone to half believe her, take her side

after they teach what should not be taught,

solitary confinement until the child learns silence.

Stele, Unknown Girl

Snow sifting between us, they say stelai once were painted.

But memory isn’t garish that way.

Her plump small hand holds a pomegranate.

Snow shifts between us, it’s a long way back

on the subway, crowded, and snow takes the trees into its house,

the one house of stone and snow.

Pentelic marble, she would have been Boetian, coastal.

Snow moves at wind’s angles, through branches of electric wires

and tree branches. Unknown, her face scratched out by time.

Memory is never that soft, and yet I could not refuse.

It wasn’t allowed. Stay with the snow, its movement between

doorways, its movement that is doorways.

Curled hair, her face eroded, her eyes still watching,

the pomegranate curved in one hand.

There’s always a story that’s not the obvious story,

a story of the peplos, the folds carved

in marble, a mirror softer than snow.

As we move through doorways, after the museum

the whole world still looks like a museum,

galleries, fairs, shows, viewing rooms, auctions.

Everything can be sold but she cannot be sold,

now, buried who knows where, unnamed and all.

The story is not the same as when it’s snowing.

Something more happens but not too much more.

It’s just our hands, our voices.

We are born, we have body, we are buried

in the sky, with snow moving through us.

And if I said I mourn my daughter every day, you’d say

I never had a daughter, but that’s not the whole story.

The dead wear clothes, lacking mirrors.

Snow takes the branches

like marrow opening outwards. I’ve wanted to stay quiet

Her story is the child who wasn’t sacrificed

but didn’t survive. And I was sacrificed

and survived. Stelai are incomplete stories

but they tell everything – mother, father, son, daughter,

human – moving through soft bodies into the featureless

future, unknown,

carving with care and attention. We don’t like taxis.

So when the subway runs out we walk the rest of the way.

Snow lifts through barriers and recedes.

What I cannot stand, cannot tolerate,

is someone coming too close.

The softness of the stele. Unknown girl, Boetian, 450 BCE.


Claire Millikin is the author of nine books of poetry, including Elegiaca Americana (Littoral Books, 2022) and Transitional Objects (Unicorn Press, 2022). Millikin's books Motels Where We Lived (Unicorn Press), Television (Unicorn Press), and State Fair Animals (Unicorn Press) were finalists for the Maine Literary Award for poetry in 2015, 2017, and 2019. As lead editor of Enough! Poems of Protest and Resistance (Littoral Books), Millikin received the 2021 Maine Literary Award for anthology. Claire Millikin is a long distance runner who lives in coastal Maine and teaches American Studies at Bates College and Art History at the University of Maine.


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