“Lizzie has been a morning teacher in the mission school connected to the parish, and has always been very active … in the work of the church.” - NY Herald, Aug 6 1892
In church, our lips move silently to the hymns. By lips, I mean: our throats. The whispers in church are so mean, Father tormented by his pettiness. By our, I mean: Mrs Borden. By our, I mean: my father. By our, I mean: me. Don't absolve me from this. I am in the pews, singing the songs like they are his body, and am fourteen again-- still learning how to keep a secret, lock a bedroom door. Don’t absolve me from this. By throats, I mean as follows: last week I taught at the mission, same as any other. Children surrounded me as I held up the flimsy paperback, pointed to the illustration of Christ in the garden. My voice felt aflame, as if I couldn’t say the words I had planned. But they came out anyway: This is what it means to feel, I said, pointing at His tears.
This is what it means to feel alone.
There's been a death. Of course no one knows what to do, 1892
My brow is thick, my hands heavy. I redraw my face every day in this tumescent heat—hoping
for an almost showy sadness. I am nothing compared to my sister. Journalists say “remorseless” to describe her rouged visage. As if painting only exists to create new emotions. As if kindness were an aesthetic choice.
If there was anything Mrs. Borden knew, it was that—the way she buried those garden pears inside her pies. Face powdered into blankness. How can any of us
compete with her secrets? I tell Lizzie, of course she knew what we said of her. She knew everything:
how molasses covers up the festering sweet of rot. Makeup, lockbox, little hole in the ground. Grief is made
by its performance. Am I bereaved?
I am bereaved. Look at me: I wear my suffering on my skin. I wear my skin on top of my other skin.
When I am burgled, I know what happens-- Our walls are so thin. Our skins are also walls. Flesh and house both a thing that steals. Her eyes like teeth.
I wrench my body in my sleep, I dream of it slithering past.
I vow the following: abandon you. My sister. My stepmother. A thorn. Who else is in this list.
When I am burgled, I wait for it to happen again, same as everyone here.
My abandonment will be floral, can never go out.
I ask questions to the house:
Do you ever feel kindness or warmth, can your flowers bloom
A Corrective, July 1891
I talk about Andrew because it’s how I’ve been taught--
The safety in men against the curl of sin in my breast,
the crinoline I use to cover where the bruises show.
I try so hard to be disciplined, Godly, a “good” “woman”. But young
Emma tells me when I first move in of her mother, the box
of rage which was her most distinctive feature, and this haunts me.
The way Sarah shadows Lizzie, her fingers I imagine more a wolf’s
than a woman’s. Her anger. The ghost she casts constricts me
as much as that of who her spouse was. My second
week in the house I find a letter, unsigned, in the boudoir:
“were she still alive, she would kill you immediately.” Neither
Borden girl says a word, but that, too, is a reason I’ve turned
to my man, sought comfort in he who brought me to this grave:
face spiteful, his knobbed spine a rock I cling to against all else.
Forgiveness only means that which we can or cannot forget.
The Sheets, 1892
I’m well aware of my failings—temper like a brick, thick, quarrelsome ribs. I am building a body out of other bodies, a sin haunted by other sins. Maybe
the word I’m looking for is a feeling instead: the jurors’ ogle at me when I entered the courtroom, paint still splashed bright on my doorstep. My body brimming with what. With seep. Even
younger, I am stained by my mis-conduct-- when I touch my travelling companion in Europe many years beforehand, her skin is pillowy, and our room
overlooks the Seine. That night, twined together, do I dream a prediction? The hatchet falling. Father’s body. I try to be Godly, but His men and their agents are stingy,
bitter, full of poison. I try to be sweet and think only of her, and the others, and the others. My palms are soft
and my fingers willowy. Am I regretful? I am regretful. If I’ve learned anything from my life, I learned it then: the weight of a companion,
our mutual wretchedness, the scent of copper, a hand that holds but only leads astray--
-- Zefyr Lisowski is a trans femme artist and writer currently based in New York. She teaches and studies at Hunter College, edits poetry for Apogee Journal, and is the author of the chapbook BLOOD BOX, from which these Lizzie Borden poems are excerpted (Black Lawrence Press, forthcoming 2019). A Pushcart nominee, Zef's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Muzzle, DIAGRAM, The Felt, and The TexasReview, among other journals. Find her at zeflisowski.com or on Twitter @zefrrrrrrr.