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Gerard de Nerval: Fairy Tale for a Whore

by Edward Hirsch


Nerval, I say to myself, quiet down,
Calm yourself. It’s bad enough that the Prince
Of Nerva is nervous, and the Duke of Nerva,
And the Duke’s German shepherd, Prince,
And the Princess’ French picapoo, Duke.
It’s bad enough that the Duke and the
Prince are barking together in the dark

While the hoot owls in the haunted wood
Hoot back at the loud castle, loudly
Repeating the dogs by repeating themselves.
It’s bad enough that you’re standing on
The floor of the roof of this fairy palace
Feeling ridiculous, looking down nervously
At Nerva’s deftly veiled window, and wondering

If the Princess is concealed somewhere inside,
Say behind the shades, or in the thick velvet
Curtains; wondering if the Prince can hear
The French Duke, or the Duke the German Prince.
Maybe they’re watching her undress in the corner!
Because you know she’s in there, whispering
Some soft watery secret to the Prince

As she lifts her velvet skirt for the Duke.
Or else you can almost, you can almost hear her
Whispering some damp family secret to the Duke
As she lifts her damp skirt for the Prince
Moaning softly. Where is the Duchess anyway?
Gogol would understand this. So would Faust.
And so would the old man who washes the statue

Of the Virgin in the vestibule of the church.
If only those damned Russian hoot owls would
Just stop hooting so that I could hear her!
If only the Prince would stop whispering
Nervously to the Duke while the Duke looks
Wildly around the room for the Duchess.
If only the Duke and the Prince outside

Would stop quarreling about the darkness
In the garden and the light on the cold roof.
Would anyone understand this ideal love? Would I?
If only I could forget the claws in my pockets,
The lobster clawing at my legs. If only I
Could live in the world instead of next to it!
This is how it always ends, happily ever after:

With the Prince and the Duke prying open the
Princess’ legs with their fingers, like a knife;
With the Duke and the Prince spreading the Princess’
Thighs on the mattress, like soft butter. How do I
Know this? I know by fairy tales of erotic love,
By the way the dogs paw at the ground, by the way
The wild owls mate with voices in the wind.

 

Edward Hirsch’s poems have appeared in a wide variety of journals, including The Paris Review, Partisan Review, and The New Yorker. He is spending 1978–79 in Europe under the auspices of grants from the Amy Lowell Foundation and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. (1978)


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