All the Princesses

Before you begin reading, open up the “soundtrack” to this piece—Amy Winehouse’s “Love is a Losing Game“—in another tab or window. This piece is meant to be read with that song as accompaniment. Also, see Winehouse’s handwritten lyrics to the song.


In the anorexia ward, otherwise known as the Island of Sad Princesses, she was the youngest at eleven years old. All these loved girls under a spell, said her mother, my friend. I texted, I am thinking of your girl/ hoping the hospital not so terrible as I left the café for the park, to sit under spreading mulberry trees. The park was on the oldest, colonial road in America, the Camino Real, a park down at the heels, with a rusted fire truck, bent slide, and yellow, winter grasses waiting for spring. Women shouted at their long-skirted girls, hair flying, on the swing set. These girls, not at school. Her kid in the hospital for months. My friend rang and cried, all my daughter says is “I hate you.”

In the Grimm Brothers’ “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” a king is concerned about his daughters, each more beautiful that the next. They emerge from their room in the mornings exhausted, distracted, and self-absorbed. He does not understand where they have gone—their love and playfulness so obviously spent elsewhere. The daughters’ shoes are worn out every morning and wouldn’t you wonder why? Where would they go when they are not with you? Why? What so empties your daughters for anything else?

The book I was trying to read in the park was from the point of view of a painter who is stuck in a kind of blur, the dead surround him, mother, father, friends, even the lovers who were gone but not dead. How crowded we all are by the invisible—I understood with a start. Where was I anyway, by the park watching evangelicals, or with my friend inside the phone, or with her daughter in Colorado, or years ago, in New Haven where my roommate ate all the week’s groceries and clogged the toilets? A mystery the plumber solved since I was incapable of figuring it out. A city bus erased the yellow strip of curb, paused for no one, and continued its groan down the road.

The twelve princesses were under a spell of sorts. They were compelled mysteriously to descend through the trap door into the underworld to dance to exhaustion; it was utter and irresistible. I was binge watching Stranger Things, a show that featured children who fought their possession. Or maybe, possession functioned this way: these kids found themselves possessed before they fully knew that the noise in the shed, the flickering lights, the familiar spaces now grown with vines, all those signs meant they were lost. In Stranger Things, the mother, played by Winona Ryder, seems like my friend, rabid in her desire to save her child. She interprets his presence when the lights flicker, sees the wallpaper ripple with a body, his? He is calling.

My friend asked me and I couldn’t answer what it means to not care to be alive, not care enough to lift spoon to mouth, not enough to stop the terrible progress of psych ward, feeding tube, kidney damage. While she talked, I watched a pit bull with many scars about her head wander by the jungle gym. A woman in a tank top with TRUST NO BITCH tattooed across her chest, jangled her keys while she searched the grass for something small. There must have been a day when that woman decided she didn’t want to live in this world in any average way. The mothers in the park called out for their girls who wanted to embrace the dog, who wagged her tail mightily, lowered her head in humility in the shorn yellow patch of grass.

While her daughter was missing, Demeter forbade the trees and plants to grow. The world would be as empty as her heart was full of pain and the people of the world began to starve. Amongst the dead, Persephone refused to eat as well. Zeus commanded Hades to return Persephone, since the world was so hungry, because the girl herself was starving. Hades, the king of the dead, tricked them all, made her eat a little bit, a small pomegranate seed, and anyone who eats the food of the underworld must stay there. Demeter keeps winter for the part of the year her daughter must go to the underworld and to the man who raped her, the man who, of course, has won.

The painter in the book turns an average corner and there he is with his modest aunt who raised him at the death of his parents. She too is dead and yet there they are on a rare holiday excursion, at the seaside, with the boats. Who needs heaven when memory gives you that dear train ride to the shore, her capable hand’s purchase on the rail of the pleasure boat? I couldn’t help but think of the character as a figure for the poet, whose mother at 103 died as the poet was writing the book. All I could think was that after more than 70 years together, her mother was finally freed. For the poet, a mother herself, the spell breaks too. But doesn’t another launch her into another love, a new despair? I heard a familiar song, as from a calliope, from down the Camino Real as the girls swung higher and higher, and the swing set’s chains squeaked, syncopated the repeating song. Notice how ice cream trucks in this city meander, all of them, to this song and, Princesses, can’t you hear them coming? Leap off your swings; mob your mother for money. Line up for something sweet and cold.