“The Silver Dagger” by Robert Cooperman

Silver Dagger—the Daughter

“All men are false, so says my mother . . .”—“Silver Dagger,” American folk song

Mother says I must give up
the young man singing love songs
outside our window, hoping
I’ll run off with him, or let him in,
though if I did, Mother would slice him
like a ham, with her silver dagger.

All she’s ever talked of is
“The treachery of men,” meaning
the rogue who had his way with her,
then left, forging another link on the chain
of his conquests that must stretch
from here to the foot of Mount Baldy.

She believes she’s poisoned me
to the glory of being caressed and loved
for my beauty and the sweetness of my soul.

To throw off her suspicions as you’d throw
off a quilt on a warm spring night,
I tell her I will never let a man
into my bed, to inflame me,
make me impatient for his hands,
for what Mother calls, “His red hot poker”:
to get her to go to sleep, so I can slip off
and leave her and her endless complaints
that her life has been stolen from her,

“By that one foul night of false bliss,”
meaning I’m partly to blame.

Oh, let me bathe in the warm water
of this man’s love; I’d not care if he left me
at dawn, and took his strumming-sweet guitar,
though I’m betting he’ll take me with him
to the ends of the earth, and beyond.


Silver Dagger—the Young Man

“Don’t sing love songs, you’ll wake my mother;
She’s sleeping here right by my side.
And in her right hand, a silver dagger.
She says that I can’t be your bride.”—“Silver Dagger,” American folk song

I’ve fallen hard as a rock through lake water
for Louisa, but her mad mother sleeps beside her
with a dagger.  I’ve tried to approach her
at their shopping; she begs me off in whispers
desperate as doves sighting a hawk;
she glances fearful as a fawn at a catamount,
at her glowering mother, and rushes past,
but leaves me not without a misty hope.

For she’ll glance back at me while Mama
drags her away like a recalcitrant schoolgirl:
had she felt nothing, she’d stare sharp
and hard as her mother’s silver dagger
and stride past as if I were a Blue Belly.

I should’ve pressed my suit with her mother,
begged her permission to court Louisa properly,
in her parlor over tea, describing my prospects:
head clerk at Mr. Smith’s Dry Goods,
an offer to buy him out when he retires.

I let myself be talked into playing the rake
by the girl’s damnably plausible father,
advising, “Court her with love songs
and you’ll inflame the girl’s heart.”

Enrage her mother’s spleen, he meant:
the scoundrel with designs too disgusting
to speak aloud, on his own daughter.


Silver Dagger—The Mother

“Don’t sing love songs you’ll wake my mother,
She’s sleeping here right by my side,
And in her right hand a silver dagger,
She says that I can’t be your bride.”—“Silver Dagger (American folk song)

Daughter, you’re my dagger against
the man who broke my heart, my life,
who left me groaning with the weight
of carrying, caring for you: when all
I wished for was him, but all he wanted
was his own pleasure, then to ride away.

So certain was I of him, I didn’t feign
the hissed warning of a muskrat in heat.
But in the moon-heavy false dawn,
he shook me off as if flicking away lint,
and was gone, quiet as the gathering dew
weighing down my belly, my life.

Now, I lie beside you, and flash
the silver dagger you’ll one day wield:
a vengeance upon men, on that one man
who whispered his made-up name
that seemed a blessing, a love poem,
but now’s a curse, an evil spell,
but one I’ve fathomed to the truth
of who he really is, and where to find him.

Your young man sings outside our window.
Bid him closer, and I’ll show him
how easily sharpened silver can slice,
how blood pours like varnish staining
a fiddle he’d steal your heart with
and break it, as your father shattered mine,
and as I will end his, using you as bait.


Silver Dagger—the Father

“My daddy is a handsome devil.  He’s got a chain five miles long.
On every link a heart does jangle, for another maid he’s loved and wronged.”—“Silver Dagger,” American folksong

Of all the gals I’ve had my sweet way with,
her mother’s the one I least regret leaving.
Even as I was cooing meaningless love words,
I could see the wheels churning in her head:
how she’d snare me for a husband—another
word for slave—or poison me slow, stab me fast;
and sob to the sheriff she’d gone mad.

I waited to hear her breathe in soft sleep
aided by my lacing her glass of toasting-
eternal-love-wine with a dose of laudanum,
when I tip-toed from her bower of bliss
she’d have gladly turned into my abattoir.

I hear she sleeps beside the daughter I gave her—
a lovely lass, so the jade should thank me—
and grips a silver dagger: but she was always
possessed by the most extravagant gestures.
Does she think to protect the girl from men?
She’ll go off no matter what her mother does,
though she’s told the hag she’ll never marry.
More’s the pity for her: not to know that glory.

Or does the old crone think I’ll return
for another go with her, so she can have
her revenge?  She was good, but not so good
I’d risk losing my life, though part of me’s
tempted to see if I can whisper and coax her
to do what she claims she doesn’t want to do again.

Robert Cooperman’s latest collection is Draft Board Blues (FutureCycle Press).  Forthcoming from Aldrich Press are Their Wars; from Liquid Light Press, Saved By The Dead; and from Main Street Rag, That Summer.  Cooperman’s work has appeared in Slant, California Quarterly, and Concho River Review.  He lives in Denver with his wife Beth.

Image courtesy of Pixabay, altered by Cartoonize.

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