Mar 04 [Home]
Heart of the Dauphin
This is the end of 200 years of uncertainty.
Until now, his death was stolen.
—Philippe Delorme (The New York Times, April 20, 2000)
Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1788)
The last portrait of thirty that Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun painted of the queen shows Marie Thèrése Charlotte de France, Madame Royale, and her brother, Louis, Le Dauphin. Louis died of natural causes early in the year that the Revolution began. The next younger child, also called Louis, here about three, became the second Dauphin—the voice in this poem. After his father was guillotined, he became known as Louis XVII. Some believed that Louis had been murdered at 10 or died of other causes while imprisoned in the Temple, others that he survived because another sickly child impersonated him. This painting still hangs at Versailles. [Eds.]
No, not a flower, but three spurts of flame—
That's how I see the fleur-de-lis. Look:
Maman wears a diamond fleur
that swims with candle stars.
Now she's playing the virginal;
can you hear? I float down the river
inside its ormolu lid. Her fugues
carry me like currents. With boats
in blue coiffures, a duchess, a countess,
an empress sail by. A cage with a squawking
cockatoo roosts in a czarina's perruque!
Hems whisper names into sand
as a lady glides past the fountain—swoosh!
Dressed up as a yew, a duke holds her hand.
Maman plays a good-night rondeau as guests
in damasked poulaines disappear
like ghosts between queues of statues:
gods with moldy faces and blank
eyes. Maman calls me to her, "Swim
off to bed, my little dolphin."
While I watch from my bedroom window,
Nounou knocks at my door: "Charles Louis!"
She tilts a plate of petits fours, each masked
with the face of an animal.
I sink into my canopy bed—its lilac-scented
sheets embossed with crowns—and chew
an apricot lion, a ginger giraffe,
a crème de menthe dolphin.
July 14, 1789
What is The Third Estate? Everything.
What has it been till now? Nothing.
What does it seek to be? Something.
These pamphlets flurry the streets.
"We pay the poll-tax, the salt-tax, the tithe;
we swell the wealth of the Crown;
we eat scraps too small for cockroaches."
Wearing a cockade of horse
chestnut leaves, a man climbs atop a barrel
and calls, "To arms!" The mob hells, strips
gunsmiths and Les Invalides of muskets
and cannons. The herd
clamors toward La Bastille: Its crenelated
towers point shadows to imprisonment
and executions without cause,
to lettres de cachet.
October 5, 1789
Thousands of women clang sabers and pikes,
and march to throw Maman from her throne.
The racket grows and even though I cover my ears,
it hammers into my head!
January 21, 1793
L'Hôtel de Ville: prelates robes and nobles' clothes blaze
around Father; the Third Estate wears black. Marat
and his men drag Papa off to the prison of Le Temple.
Please, please don't hurt him!
July 2, 1793
Explosions of glass—I shoot up in bed. "Why,
Maman?" Men with square hands burst
into Le Trianon, smash open the gilt
doors. The men stink
so much I can't breathe! Oily grime on necks
and clothes. A man shouts, "We are
The Committee of Public Safety." They tear
Maman from me and tease,
"Dauphine, Dauphinette—Go ahead, tell us you hate
that perfumed bitch, Madame Déficit!
Her porcelain maw. A sow's vulva. Say it
to save yourself." I can't . . .
A man strokes our brocades, gazes into mirrored
galleries, ogles his reflections. Turning,
he turns into a gargoyle—talons hook me
like a suckling pig:
"Your mommy's powdered neck, her horse-
hair, whore-hair curls. Her head will dance
through streets of Paris on a spike—
Come watch, my little dolphin boy!"
Another man hacks off the coat-of-arms
with three interlocking dolphins, lugs it away.
Blindfolded, in back of the curtained carriage,
I hear the men sing:
Un cocu, un bâtard, une catin?
Voyez le Roi, la Reine,
Et Monsieur le Dauphin . . .
The eyeless ride brings me to Le Temple. No
temple, no place for gods or humans. Blessed Virgin,
where is Maman? Who'll take care of me now?
No, no, no throbs from the ache
where the men smashed out my teeth. Panic
swells and sticks to my skull. I fall and
fall into a hole of sleep. One, two, three days pass.
Red rat eyes puncture the dark,
then dart as keys jangle. Men guffaw, their voices
reek of wine and sulfur. One man bites breath
from my mouth. Others rip the ragged clothes
from me: I am Versailles.
Clutching candles, they eye the conquest: a man
shoves my face to the floor, hurts my bottom with jabs.
In their laughter, I black out. Shadows the shape
of hands swarm over my flesh.
October 21, 1793
Guards brag that a canaille stacked a pyramid
of 2,800 heads, that a ghoul balanced Maman's
tête on top, crimson crusting down her cheeks!
Listening, I weep blood—
Archives insist I live at Le Temple
two years. Don't believe those brittle books.
I tell you it's longer, tell you those men
(except one, who grows
to love me) return less often, afraid
of tumors gnarling my legs, of scabies,
of vermin. I rasp my skin open
to soothe the sores.
If only Maman would return to me. . . .
I lie on this mattress of gnawed
straw, hating my stench on the blanket.
In the dark, her eyes are the eyes of rats.
I raise a torch and see her crimped lashes,
her coral mouth, her meringue hair
writhing into white
snakes that ooze from her scalp. Maman,
your eyes glower embers as you
chant this rondeau: "One heart
we had betwixt us twain;
Which being dead, I too must dree.
Death, or like carven saints we see.
In choir, sans life to live be fain,
But she's only a head lanced on a spike. Rank
after rank of stakes with her head
file by—a choir of faces on fire—
my cell grown vast
as the Grand Ballroom. When I wake, her face
liquefies. Morning trickles into my cell
through a crack where Marat's men
sealed my window. Sucking
out my breath, this room is a rancid mouth
I rot inside. Try, try, try to chip
the mortar without the guard hearing—
My fingers bleed.
Each night the pageantry multiplies:
the eyes white-hot, a black sap drips
from lips. One night—I'm not sure how—
it rains inside my cell:
Fat drops of molten bronze! Hundreds slant down
in phalanxes, become scorpions digging
into my cicatrized flesh, my scabs, my tumors.
Stingers pierce me.
I see their bruised and powdered faces:
tout chacun c'est le visage de Maman!
Embedded, the scorpions nest inside my skin.
I talk and laugh and sing to them.
Books swear I die soon after. None
agree on the cause. Each one says I'm
only ten. And that part's true. But I'm no
longer sure what death
spells. After all, here I am—a blur
of ether—scrawling above these words
as I once hovered above my corpse.
Again I view
the autopsy scalpel halve my torso: ribs
splay like a bear trap. Small for my age,
shrunken by hunger, my heart
is a prize in the eyes
of another doctor, Philippe-Jean Pelletan.
While the autopsy team dilates on opinions,
rinsing instruments, he carves it out. Wrapping
it in a handkerchief,
he secretes the organ into a satchel, floats it
in alcohol, but doesn't press the stopper
tight. As details of my death fade,
the alcohol spirits
itself away. My heart dries hard as Maman's
diamonds. For years, it peers from a fluted
jar as I now peer through ether's wall.
Finding a rusted key,
Pelletan's mustachioed aide-de-camp
unlocks the chained room: drowned
in shadow, a pell-mell of papers, books
and figurines from travel
—baboon's skull, Javanese Buddha—
under a fur of dust. Coughing back
gray air, the man steals my mushroom-
colored heart. Amulet . . .
One night, while he drowses over Voltaire,
I plunge my fist between his ribs, unstring
his heart like a harp. Arm throbbing, he grabs
his chest, gasps and dies.
His widow, racked with guilt, drops
the amulet into a purple pouch, hangs it
from an iron fleur-de-lis before
the house of Pelletan.
In a return to Dieu and l'Église, he
pleads it to the Archbishop: "Anoint
this as a reliquary." In prayers they revere
this morsel of me.
Hoards impale servants, jam-pack crosiers
and crucifixes into sacks. The Holy Palace
is another Versailles! I gawk—not wanting to—
through the membrane-
lens between our realms. Hearing the uproar,
the Archbishop's printer, a certain Monsieur
Lescroart, grabs a crystal urn,
plants my bulb
inside and stuffs the archives that attest
its authenticity into his vest. Hunting
the scentless ghost of a child, guards
gut the palace
with bayonets, squalling like beasts.
A sentry corners Lescroart in a stairwell,
wrestles him, snaps his neck like a lily stem.
The urn shatters
down marble stairs, where wine light spills
from a stained-glass window. There it is—
coronated by fragments engraved with fleurs-
de-lis: the heart, freed
from the world I knew. Imprisoned
in Bourbon beliefs—no less than in mildewed
cells—we justified the grief we caused
beyond our mirrored walls.
Here, I spirit through chambers—cells
in a crystal beehive—where I see
from other bevels of view and time
with a swarm of eyes.
April 19, 2000
Under fluorescence, Philippe Delorme
pins and clamps my antique heart, shaves it
as a chef would a truffle. He lays
a sliver on the slide,
peers through a microscope, spies
onto another era: Compared with DNA
from decayed wisps of Maman's hair,
my molecules mouth
what chafed voices long denied, what Delorme
now types on history's screen:
Charles Louis XVII, Le Dauphin.
Two spurts of flame MarieAntoinetteson in cosmic static fuse.
Translation of the popular song:
Would you know
A cuckold, a bastard, a whore?
See the King, the Queen.
And Monsieur the Dauphin.
The excerpted rondeau, sung by Marie Antoinette's ghost, was written by François Villon, translated by John Payne.
Tout chacun c'est le visage de Maman: Each one is Mother's face.
Poulaines: long, pointed shoes.
Lettres de cachet: Orders under the King's seal, whereby detainees were imprisoned for life without judgment.
Dieu: God. l'Église: The Church.
Dean Kostos is the author of the collection The Sentence that Ends with a Comma (Painted Leaf Press, 1999; taught at Duke University, 2003) and the chapbook Celestial Rust (Red Dust Press, 1994). He co-edited the anthology Mama's Boy: Gay Men Write About Their Mothers (Painted Leaf Press, 2000; a Lambda Book Award finalist). His poems have appeared in American Book Review, International Poetry Review, Art & Understanding, The Bitter Oleander, Blood and Tears (anthology), Boulevard, Chelsea, Exquisite Corpse, The International Poetry Review, The James White Review, The National Forum, Oprah Winfrey's website Oxygen, Poetry New York, Rattapallax, Southwest Review, Big City Lit, and elsewhere. His translations from the Modern Greek and Spanish have appeared in Talisman, Bomb, and Barrow Street, his reviews in American Book Review, Bay Windows, and elsewhere. "Box-Triptych," his choreo-poem, was staged at La Mama. He has taught poetry writing at Pratt University, Gotham Writers' Workshop, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and The Great Lakes Colleges Association. He is a member of PEN American Center, and was also the recipient of a Yaddo fellowship. Trained initially as a visual artist, his works have been exhibited in galleries and at the Brooklyn Museum. He lives in New York.
["First green is gold "]