The Russian Doll
After Elder Olson
Six inches tall, the Russian doll
stands like a wooden bowling pin.
The red babushka on her painted head
melts into her shawl and scarlet
peasant dress, and spreading over that,
the creamy lacquer of her apron.
A hairline crack fractures the equator
of her copious belly,
that when twisted and pulled apart,
reveals a second doll inside,
exactly like her, but smaller,
with a blue babushka and matching dress,
and the identical crack circling her middle.
Did Faberge' fashion a doll like her
for a czar's daughter? Hers would be
more elaborate, of course, and not a toy-
emerald eyes, twenty-four carat hair,
and with filigreed petticoats
like a chanterelle's gills blown inside out.
An almost invisible fault line
would undermine her waist,
and a platinum button that springs her body open.
Now I have two dolls: mother and daughter.
Inside the daughter, a third doll is waiting.
She has the same face,
the same figure,
the same fault she can't seem to correct.
Inside her solitary shell
where her duplicate selves are breathing,
she can't be sure
whose heart is beating, whose ears
are hearing her own heart beat.
Each doll breaks into
a northern and a southern hemisphere.
I line them up in descending order,
careful to match each womb
with the proper head - a clean split,
for once, between the body and the mind.
A fourth head rises over the rim
of the third doll's waist,
an egg cup in which her descendants grow
in concentric circles.
Until last, at last, the two littlest dolls,
too wobbly to stand upright,
are cradled in her cavity as if waiting to be born.
Like two dried beans, they rattle inside her,
twin faces painted in cruder detail,
bearing the family resemblance
and the same unmistakable design.
The line of succession stops here.
I can pluck them from her belly like a surgeon,
thus making the choice between fullness
and emptiness; the way our planet, itself,
is rooted in repetitions, formal reductions,
the whole and its fraction.
Generations of women emptying themselves
like one-celled animals; each reproducing,
apparently, without a mate.
I thought the first, the largest, doll
contained nothing but herself,
but I was wrong.
I assumed that she was young
because I could not read her face.
Is she the oldest in this matriarchy -
holding withing her hollow each daughter's
daughter? Or, the youngest -
carrying the embryo of the old woman
she will become? Is she an onion
all the way through? Maybe,
like memory shedding its skin,
she remembers all the way back to when
her body broke open for the first time,
to the child of twelve who fits inside her still;
who has yet to discover that self,
always hidden, who grows and shrinks,
who multiplies and divides.