“Le Rêve” by Sandi Leibowitz
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(After Henri Rousseau)

If you would spend
your coin wisely in Paris, Armande,
there is only one courtesan to seek,
though a night with her’s costlier
than your pied-a-terre on the rue de Boulogne.

Inquire discreetly
through her agent, Madame Volisseur,
send your card, an elegantly phrased letter
perfumed with jasmine,
a box of exquisite chocolates
enhanced by a bon-bon
of sapphires or diamonds.
Pray she looks favorably upon your invitation.

Her name?
Dearest Armande, none knows her true name
or where she came from.
She calls herself Yadwigha.
Don’t laugh.
Names are nothing.

A Venus? Hardly.
White skin and firm breasts,
I grant you,
but a face less lovely than your wife’s,
dear Armande;
she’s hardly more pleasant to look at
than the baker’s daughter.

Why, then?
Ah, why.

You lie upon her couch.
“Close your eyes,”
she’ll whisper
but there’s no teasing
in that voice; it’s a command.
Obey.
On the instant you will feel
humors rise, a damp heat
that both lulls and excites.
Your pulse, Armande, will gallop
as though you’d downed a dram of cognac.

The room, you swore, held gilded mirrors,
a rosewood étagère, tasteful paintings,
just one damned ordinary potted fern.

And yet you hear green rustlings,
the sighings of a host of moist palm trees.
Wings beat. You mark a distant growl,
a squawk, and closer, closer, comes
a footless writhing as of something
venturing across dead leaf and twig.
Insects chitter, singly then in chorus,
billowing in and out of discord,
the rasping of dry wings and hungry stingers.

And the scent.
The pathetic fakery of Guerlain fades,
till something sweeter, stronger
overtakes it,
part floral and part bestial.
It stirs your manhood.
It is the scent of orchids and of tigers,
the scent of tongue and skin.

Make love to her and it’s
the jungle that you enter.

The sound of a lone flute rises,
its wailings wilder than the hoots and cries
of your inhuman audience,
the winding of its tune more complex
than the tangling of smooth limbs with your own,
the grinding of your unseen partner’s hips.

“Yadwigha!” you will shout
in climax, and it’s more the ape
than man you’ll note in your own voice.

As your heartbeat slows
to a normal pace,
open your eyes, and there you lie,
her red couch islanded in green,
pink-lipped lotuses gaping wide,
an army of eyes gleaming red
through the flimsy veil of ferns.

Costlier than opium dreams,
a night with Yadwigha,
and more rich.

Sweat beads down your chest,
its salt licking at tender spots
you did not know you’d earned;
your back bears red wounds that feel
deep as a lion’s scorings.
They say some men don’t make it back.
— Jean Silvestre, you have heard
of his disappearance? —
Rumor has it he was last seen
entering the girl’s apartments.

As you lie panting on her velvet bed,
the hairs on your arms rise,
sensing the predator.
And yet you wish to descend again,
to that underworld,
that jungle, that dream,
Yadwigha,
the most dangerous courtesan in Paris.


A native New Yorker, Sandi Leibowitz is a school librarian, classical singer, and writer of speculative fiction and poetry. She has works published or forthcoming in places like Mythic Delirium, Strange Horizons, Stone Telling, Liminality and Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year 5.
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    • just some guy

      I know this is only tangentially relevant to the poem, which is fine enough, but “rêve” is masculine, so “le rêve,” not “la.” I find the error off-putting, and, after all, if you are going to write a poem, shouldn’t you care enough to get this sort of thing right?