Michelle Mitchell-Foust, '85

Dr. Michelle Mitchell-Foust lives in Dana Point, California, where she is an instructor at Irvine Valley College. Graduating from Eastern with a BA from Eastern Illinois University and a doctorate in English from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Antioch Review, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, Interim, Black Warrior Review, American Literary Review, Columbia, Southern Poetry Review, The Academy of American Poets New Voices Anthology, Elixir, Equinox, Fabric, The Honest Ulsterman, and Quarterly West. She has been an American Poet in Residence in Donegal, Ireland since 1996. Her poetry manuscript entitled The Five Dreams of the Body was published in Chinese in 1999 by T & K Publishing, and her book Circassian Girl received the Elixir Press Poetry Prize and was released in the Fall, 2001.

Michelle is a winner of the Missouri Arts Council Writers' Biennial Award, a Writers At Work Fellowship, Columbia University's poetry competition, an Academy of American Poets Prize, and the 1996 "Discovery" / The Nation award. A limited edition chapbook version of her poem Poets at Seven was published by Sutton Hoo Press in 1995. A second chapbook, Exile, was published by Sangha Press in 2000. Her chapbook The Marriage Bed of Chang and Eng is forthcoming from Sangha Press. She has written her first novel, Wet Collection, and she is nearing completion of a new poetry collection entitled Imago Mundi.


The Marriage Bed of Chang and Eng

for Eng's Wife, Sarah

"Love: a snake with two heads that unceasingly keep watch on each other."
—Elias Canetti




When one sees
a bride coming,

all in white, white floating
around her in the car,

one doesn't see a woman,
but a myth, the white dress,

the truth. Likewise, the freak
always dredges up the sideshow.


Sarah, I looked for your dilemma
in the world, in this

rare, modest ocean today,
so little difference

between the sky
and the sea,

certainly none in color,
only in the texture

from cumulus to cirrus,
and it's hours until

the distinction
made by the small bluer

line at the horizon,
hours before the ocean

sways like evening dress
covered with sails, at noon.

Now there's
nothing left

in either direction.
The sky takes the water with it,

the water pulls in the air,
play-acting a Hollywood marriage,

or famous conjoined twins,
and the opaque sections of cloud

make burned places
on the mountains.


Honestly, the blessing
of a double yoke

in my mother's bowl
was the closest I'd come

to les monstres doubles
She spoke so little at all

about the family twins,
the almost twins.

Never said more
than a word or two

about her sister's extra ribs,
and her extra spine,

but there's no forgetting
what little she said,

some words are like a room,
an egg in flames, a deuce of hearts.


Maybe I stopped an anomaly
for a moment

not having a child yet
in all these years of marriage--

afraid of having twins,
afraid of not having twins.


We need a death,
an inaugural, to begin,

now that we've spent our lives
not seeing ... the school

before the school,
the cemetery in the schoolyard.

Mine took the shape
of the separation of twins.

I sang with the breathless Borelli girls
in school, and I sang at the funeral

when my uncle could only pull
one woman from the drunken car.

The screams never left him,
all that waistlength air in flames.


It all depends on this:
with whom we confuse ourselves.

One of Petrarch's inaugurals
had twins at its center.

The poet's father thought
he was showing the boy an omen

when he pointed to the cathedral frieze
of the joined boys carved there in 1317,

like the myths carved beneath
the choir boys' seats at Cornwall:

(a woman riding with one foot dragging,
a bird caged in her hand,)

signs of another answer,
signs of a war encroaching,

signs of inevitable fire,
and the man Petrarch became

called out the same woman's name,
all his life.

But when one sees
a bride coming,

all in white, white hanging
in the wardrobe

filled white
like an almond,

one doesn't see a woman only,
but a millennium, and steam

behind the glass. Likewise,
the freak always dredges up the sideshow.


No forgetting Barnum's
Deuce of Hearts, the fearful

symmetry of Chang and Eng,
their dire telepathy, juggling

before a crowd. No forgetting
their legacy on the California news lately,

the new fate: the tiny Siamese girls,
the blossom, the starfish of their body.

No longer fast to each other,
one twin flung her arm out for days,

looking for the sister phantom.
the other cried out their names.


I have been in love so hard,
I didn't know where I began and ended.

The Chinese market before the moon festival
swelled with fish of all kinds, and moon cakes

for feeding the hungry ghost, lotus,
black bean. It is not a sky. It's a room

my friend shopped those days,
a room filled with edibles for union

and lettuces she wheeled around the isles,
and Taiwan was a long way off for her.

She bought a Hundred-Year Egg for me,
glowing in a white heap, salted hard,

the clay and ash worn off from the days
when they kept for a thousand years.

At the full moon, I moved the egg
to a drawer, one white body was enough,

and imagined the joined twins,
orphaned by typhoid, their names

rhyming in the Thai custom
of close-born siblings.

They invented ways to sell their eggs
on the big ships in Siam.


I wish I could say
I had seen your dress

and said I had never seen
so many stars run together

to make two sisters'
wedding dresses.

What else do sisters wear
to intrude on a marriage

made of skin?


Moon in the hollowed-out space
of hurricane clouds,
for a second,

egg boiling in water,
what has Eng whispered to you
since the wedding?


Climb onto me. Chang's had several,
and if his eyes are half-open,
it's a hoax of waking.

Climb onto me.
It's almost morning.
Climb on. I'm full of you,

the kiss I put in your ear,
the drink sweating on the other table,
sugared violets floating on gin,

and the silvery cold taste of well water
in your mouth. Climb on.


He'd taken you for
a tiny little mirror,

and in the daylight,
the moon was still out,

but it had moved to
the other side of the house.


Revelation in progress: your ten-in-one
loneliness, the ten acts like children side-by-side,

Sarah, I read a book about the close call,
when the rope in Chang's head gave

into a stroke, and his drunken throwing
of the household valuables into the fire

grew tired. I dreamed you said your back
had broken long-ways, down the spine,

in a dream like a miscast spell,
and all the churches with Siamese twins

joined throapagus at the cornices,
at Vézelay and Anzy-le-Duc,

and all the locks among the Dogons,
in the Sudan, decorated with a human pair

had something to do with Eve
emerging from the first person,

and you were smiling when you told me.
You remembered the long night you dreamed

twin gargoyles stole your peace,
when they were nowhere to be found.

No howling by the door for that long.
So tired from dreaming, you were decadent

and threw the extra ice, like glass
over the porch floor after supper.


Did you marry

Marry the joined twins'
worst fear?

Not quite the fear
a giant has of doctors,

picturing his longer bones
grave-stolen and boiled,

poised looming over
all the eggs and skins

on the dark table.
Worse even.

The brother's death
as fatal.


Before light,
one of your twelve children

answered Eng's last question
Uncle Chang is cold,

the death sentence.
The blood rushing

to his brother
grows colder and colder

until there's nothing
but cold.


Sister, your husband
died of fright, long after

their secret had exhausted them,
arm-shaped secret the finest surgeons

wouldn't open, the God's teeth
never bothered to tear apart.

Long after the same secret had exhausted you.
each swing of the pendulum three days long.

You hid their body in the shallow
charcoal grave of Chang's cellar

until their skeleton had long gone
to the back of the resurrection man's mind.


Some thousand nights ago, in your sleeping quarters
at the dime museum, a girl insomniac contorted

in a red ribbon, long veined to the ceiling.
She closed the ribbon around herself,

and leaned her body against the fabric
gone girlishly damp, and moved you to waken,

breast bone and chin bone all painful
with transfixed desire.

Lovely, she was tied to nothing,
no arm of flesh from her air to another's body,

and she was the blood moving in the show, the one
who got carried away with her act, and tired herself

so thoroughly she was often carried away from the ring
by the tiny, bloodless girls in powdered wigs.

You never wanted Eng more to yourself than then,
in the early hours of show days,

when the beams creaked from the slight weight of her,
shifting. Your sex was always a high-wire act.

For god's sake, when you shuddered,
they shuddered.


Called Back

580 Main, Amherst

I understood
those lines about birds.

I heard your house
from the other side,

its ice dropping
from the windows

and thawing
onto the slabs of ice

already slipped
off the porch.

At the foot of
the economy car,

the pinecone thawed
in my pocket, sister

of the little ones
at your grave.


I smelled the sap
on my hands

before I saw it--
black from the lining

in my pocket--
even the plant's fingers

dozed off
in the cold--

the idols of thought
frozen at the knob,

and I asked you--to myself
if we were relatives.


For some, discipline
is taking things away.

For some, it's adding.
Emily, I always add.

Just like the man
in your window,

putting on his heavy coat.
Your voice in his ear

the frequency
of the human heart.


Oh your great heart-
colored house lying still--

oh your great green shutter
hanging off its hinge

at the wet window
where a man puts on his coat.

Like the air
up under the coat,

the famous trees
cut loose

in a gesture
worthy of silence.


The Marriage Bed of Chang and Eng is from Michelle Mitchell-Foust's first book, Circassian Girl © 2001, Elixir Press, Minneapolis, MN. To order the book, click image at right.