Self-Portrait as Violet Hilton
Daisy and Violet Hilton were conjoined twins who first went on tour at age 3. Their last public performance was in 1961, 8 years before their deaths.
If I’d never been alone before, listened hard for her last breath
but hadn’t heard it; if I’d promised not to call for help,
summon the knives and surgeons that would try to slice me free;
if we’d been famous, then forgotten, at least a dozen times,
been stars on Broadway and in Hollywood, then danced at drive-ins
just so we could eat; if we were out of ways to make our act feel new
and were grateful, finally, for something like a normal life—
cardigans, cashiering in a grocery store for people too polite to stare;
if I’d never been the pretty one, the one whose voice and timing
were most true; if my sister had witnessed every minute
of my brief married life, if I’d made my husband vow to love her, too;
if we’d sometimes fought so hard we only spoke onstage;
if I’d ever heard her cry at night but pretended to be sleeping,
never apologized for years of heavy drinking, schemes
I’d sworn would make us rich, baby I’d made her give away;
if our dignity was something we’d always tried to keep—
Then I, too, might’ve covered my dead sister with every blanket
I could reach, called a friend but told him not to come,
and laid down to wait for one last curtain.
His Breath Burning My Skin
When he found me I was lost, hadn’t seen
my parents in three years. He took off
my clothes, taught me about the world,
who had power and who deserved
to seize it. When he looked at me
I filled with light. When he didn’t,
I disappeared. He said our fear
could make us free, that death
was a great gift. I called him Father
because he saw my faults and loved
me anyway, because the name
he gave me was finally the right one.
Even when he wasn’t there he knew
what I was thinking, how I moved.
He knew if I let doubt creep in.
When he gave me the knife I was glad
it was beginning, glad he’d chosen me.
When people ask me Why I don’t know
how to answer. I used to have
bad dreams—my hand on the knife,
the knife in blood. For thirty years
I woke up sick. When the nightmares
stopped I couldn’t sleep. I get tired
of telling the story—his hot hands
on my shoulders, his breath burning
my skin. The parole board tries
to measure my remorse. They want
to know how much of what I did
was my idea. I can’t love myself unless
I love him, too. Sometimes my face
feels like someone else’s. Sometimes
I’m afraid I wasted my one chance.
CARRIE SHIPERS' poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Southern Review, among other journals. She is the author of two chapbooks, Ghost-Writing (Pudding House, 2007) and Rescue Conditions (Slipstream Press, 2008), and her first full-length collection, Ordinary Mourning, was released by ABZ Press in May 2010.