From the Archive: "Ava Gardner Reincarnated as a Magnolia," by Margaret Atwood

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“Ava Gardner Reincarnated as a Magnolia,” by Margaret Atwood, appeared in the Fall 1995 issue of MQR.


Somehow I never succeeded
in being taken seriously. They made me
wear things that were ruffled: off-the-
shoulder blouses, the tiered skirts
of flouncing Spanish dancers, though I never
quite got the hauteur — I was always tempted
to wink, show instead of a tragic
outstretched neck, a slice of flank. Now look
at me: a vaginal hot pink,
vibrant as a laxative bottle —
not, given the company, a respectable
color. Let’s face it: when I was in
the flesh, to be beautiful and to be
a woman was a kind
of joke. The men wanted to nail
me in the trophy room, on the pool
table if possible, the women simply to poke
my eyes out. Me, I would have preferred
to enjoy myself — a little careless
love, some laughs, a few drinks —
but that was not an option.

What would have given
me weight? Substance? For them.
Long canines? Vengeance?
A stiletto hidden in my skirt,
a greyish rainbow of fate
like an aureole of rancid lard —
or better: dress up in armor,
ride across the steppes, leading a horde
of armed murderers. That gets you a statue,
copper or stone, with a solemn frown,
— jaw clenched as if chewing —
like those erected by the sober
citizens, years later,
for all the sad destroyers.

Well, to hell with them. I’d rather
be a flower, even this one, so much like
a toilet-paper decoration
at a high school dance.
Even that, to be trampled
underfoot next day by the janitor
sweeping up, even the damp flirtation,
the crumpled tulle, even the botched smooch
in the parking lot, the boy with the fat neck
and the hip flask, even the awkward fumbling
with the wired bodice, cheap perfume between
the freckled breasts, would have been better
than all their history, the smudged
flags, dry parchments, layers of dead bone
they find so solemn, the slaughters
they like to memorize, and tell
their children also to pray to

here, where they hate bouquets, the pleasures
of thoughtless botany, a glass
of wine or two on the terrace,
bare leg against white trouser
under the table, that ancient ploy
and vital puzzle, water-
of-life cliché that keeps things going,
tawdry and priceless, the breeze
that riffles through what now
may be my leaves, my green closed
eyes, my negligible
vulgar fragile incandescent petals,
these many mouths, lipsticked and showy
and humid as kisses opening
in a hothouse, oh I’d give anything
to have it back again, in
the flesh, the flesh,
which was all the time
I ever had for anything. The joy.


Image: Stetson, Charles Walter. Detail of “Magnolia.” 1895. Oil on canvas mounted on fiberglass. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

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