September 7, 2021

The Sleeper Awakened, By Jeana Jorgensen


Editor’s note: This poem swept me away, and fired my imagination. Rich in detail, I found myself unable to resist the storytelling in this poem. Enjoy! (Kate)

You must remember that I smiled daily

through sleep-stained eyes,

accepted jewels from your hand,

each gem a weight on my neck,

a cruel pressure that stopped up my throat

and caged my voice

but nonetheless let it rest.

 

When one night of marriage flipped

into two, then three, then four,

it was as though the whole palace

seized and sighed, and servants

began to look me in the eye

and heed my requests.


My sister commanded an army of couriers:

sent them to the Maghreb, to the Mamluks,

to el-Andalus, to the Chola dynasty,

to warring Seljuqs and Jalayirids,

and oh the stories they brought back:

calligraphy on lamb-skin parchment,

papyrus, even paper from farther east.


Before, I had enough stories in me –

some from books, some from mouths –

to number as many as ants drawn to honey.

Within weeks, I had enough stories

to compete with stars in the sky,

enough to keep me alive,

but still one was missing:

the story to buy my freedom.


An emissary from the clever Kabyles

laid one manuscript at my feet:

spooling threads of Maghrebi calligraphy

almost overflowing and spilling onto the rugs,

threatening to dye tassels with its rich blue ink

written in lilting Tifinagh script:

twenty tales, and one a key.


The peasant man switches places with a caliph

(my mind catalogues the motif,

coming up with 31 similar tales immediately)

who enjoys his loquacious inebriation

and dresses up the peasant in his clothes,

making him caliph for a day.

The peasant thinks himself caliph,

makes advances to the slave girls,

caresses them with words and callused hands

until one agrees to come to his bed:

but first, a meal, one she peppers with banj,

and the sleep that comes for him is swift,

his memories muddled.


Swallowed by sleep, the peasant

wakes in his own bed:

was he a caliph dreaming of being a peasant,

or a peasant dreaming of being caliph?

Two more nights the caliph tricks him;

two more nights the slave girl drugs him.


Eventually

the caliph reveals the ruse,

rewarding the peasant with wealth for life.


No more is written of the slave girl.

She disappears from the story.


The court chemist finds me banj,

laces it with poppy milk and other gifts

from loyal diplomats.

Loyal to me, I should specify.


I know how much you love your tea

before story-time. You’ve loved it for months now

…how many months? Ah. Good question, but

the main question now is:


Should you disappear?


Or should I?


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Jeana Jorgensen earned her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy tales and fairy-tale retellings, folk narrative more generally, body art, dance, and feminist/queer theory. Her poetry has appeared at Strange Horizons, Quatrain. Fish, Liminality, Glittership, and other venues.


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This poem was brought to you by Steve Aultman, a Patreon patron. We need your help to keep publishing wonderful works like this one, so please consider becoming a donor. Learn more here.


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Image of Scheherazade by Virginia Sterett.

6 comments:

Kelly Jarvis said...

A fabulous poem…such imagery and beauty! I love it!

Ben T. Shomshor said...

!!!

HulderMN said...

So beautiful, layered, and sophisticated
to charm a dangerous audience,

Sharmon Gazaway said...

Love how the rich setting imagery weaves in and out, stitching each stanza's continuance of the tale.

Jeana Jorgensen said...

Thank you so much, Kelly!

Jeana Jorgensen said...

Thank you for your wonderful comments, everyone!

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