In Their Own Words

Isabella DeSendi on “Herodias”


In your orgasmic stupor, you sleep
     with a man’s severed head in your lap

and in the man’s head, a dry tongue
     dead as a slug in late September.

In nature, brutality is law and there is nothing
     more beautiful than the body of another

being whipped or chained or scoured because it means
     that we’ve survived.

What else is ecstasy but the light
     Cairo has chosen to paint you in.

Even the natural shadows that rest against
     your eyes, soft and gray as unfurled sails

are at peace with the small wreckage
     like a gift in your hands.

I know it’s something stronger than sleep
     which takes you now—

you’re tired of enduring.
     Walking down Broadway at night, I imagine

mutilating every tongue that harasses the body
     I perceive as mine.

Herodias, teach me not to feel
     regret, to like the sound a neck makes

when it breaks, the blade cleaving
     clean through bone. I’d give anything to know

the pleasure you feel, his head
     resting where it is now. Show me. Put a knife

in my mouth. Leave a hole in my body
     big enough for you to touch.

On “Herodias"

This poem was inspired by Francesco del Cairo’s “Herodias with the Head of Saint John the Baptist” which I first stumbled upon while walking haphazardly through the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Looking at Herodias, I felt seen, understood. I had just arrived at a pivotal point in my life where I was learning to turn from grief toward rage. Ecstasy was what I saw when I first caught a glimpse of Herodias holding the head of her accuser. The euphoria and control she displays are undeniably radical. She bewitched me. She showed me it was possible to subvert tropes surrounding female victimhood at a time when it felt like I would always be under the thumb of my pain. Writing this poem helped me discover the delight that comes with reclaiming power, which for the writer, only happens after words appear. Looking at Herodias gave me the courage to get these words down. It showed me I could be in control of how I processed trauma. It helped me see myself clearer. But this is also the power of ekphrastic poetry. Cairo's work made visible what I was already feeling and connected me to a narrative that was bigger than my own. Ultimately, it helped me see beyond sorrow, despair, contempt—and what waited at the end of it all was this: pleasure, power, bliss.

More In Their Own Words