ODE TO RED LIPSTICK
Cleopatra crushed beetles
to make red lipstick
because even in 30 BC
she knew speaking 12 languages
would be even more impressive
when the words jumped
through a ring of fire.
Ruby Woo. I smile and split
The Red Sea.
In medieval times, religious groups
condemned makeup for challenging god
and his workmanship,
but I and any good femme know—
God invented lipstick.
In post-war New York, butches could get locked up
if they weren’t wearing three pieces of traditional
women’s clothes. Lipstick, stashed in a pinstripe suit pocket,
swiped on quick when someone threw their voice across the bar
to warn that the cops were barging the door,
could keep a queer from being a casualty
for the night.
And when Bergen-Belsen concentration camp
was liberated, each pair of lips as pale as the next,
along with the British Red Cross arrived a shipment
of lipstick. No one was quite sure
who asked for it—seemed petty—what
could a tube of maroon do for women
whose hair, whose babies, were ripped from their bodies?
Who could pick up a shard of a war’s mirror
for long enough to apply a smile?
How could lipstick be necessary
when there’d been experiments on children? Twins
sewn together at the back? When the nail scratches
in the gas chambers made their way
Five hundred a day, still dying.
Even when liberated, the prisoners could not be looked at
as individuals. Some of them would still die
One lieutenant said he believed nothing
did more for the survivors than that lipstick.
Women, thin as smoke, naked e v e r y w h e r e
except for their mouths:
Red, like they might one day
flirt again, arm
on a jukebox,
The next time it’s deemed frivolous,
something left on a napkin
or absent cheek,
in its tube,
like a bullet,
but in reverse,
—from Rattle #59, Spring 2018
Megan Falley: “With special thanks to poet Jess Nieberg, whose creative collaboration and encouragement pulled this dormant poem from my pen.” (web)