Virtue Poem By Cynthia Huntington
All the houses are white;
all the yards have yellow flowers
attended by bees.
If you must be born female
try coming as an insect—
they have the edge. Bees
spoil their little brothers just
so long and then they’re through.
The queen has a hundred lovers,
her daughters, none. A nation of sisters
lives forever: wasps and ants.
Here in New England
you’ll come across old family plots
—farmers with two or three wives
set down in a row; prayers and faint praise
for the good woman, wife, mother:
modest and weary, homely as a shoe.
How she stirred and kneaded,
baked, sewed, scrubbed, and bore down.
I let the ants come in my kitchen
and carry off bread crumbs.
Girl soldiers, all discipline and grit.
Flies buzz the heads of stupefied cows,
up to their knees in yarrow,
hissing: “wake up, wake up!”
Their teats swell, heavy with milk,
long after they’re done
being anyone’s mother.
In the corner of the garage
a spider devours her mate,
wraps up what she can’t finish
and hangs it to dry. Mosquitoes
murmur for blood in the high grasses.
A car door slams down the street.
Milk and honey, butter and jam,
what virtue in living as a slave?
In the kitchen I unpack groceries:
sweet peas, cider, wild honey, pears
burst from the flowering branch.
first published in The Massachusetts Review, vol. XL,
no. 2, Summer 1999
also from The Radiant