Saturday, February 03, 2007

Two Paulas

I was messing with my 28mm f/2.8 lens inside today, working up the fortitude to go out into the wind and cold, and found that I'd taken a casual, mirrored self-portrait with Paula Modersohn Becker's self portrait looking over my shoulder. I took a more studied version of it -- and it reminded me of a series of poems I'd written years ago, circa 1999, called "Self-Portrait With Self Portrait." I dredged one out, no mean task as the bulk of my oeuvre (such as it is) was written with a now obsolete word processing program; opening the poems in Microsoft Word tends to create mincemeat, arguably an improvement over my dull iambs and clunking narrative.

So, anyway, the poem's in high confessional mode, N. being the poetic wight who broke my heart in med school, the husband in question being long-shed husband #1, and the occasion is being pregnant during internship.


For somewhere there is an ancient enmity
between our daily life and the great work.

Rainer Maria Rilke, “Requiem for A Friend”

Dearest N.,

Today I found your postcard, Picasso’s blue
thin girl scowling under coils of hair.
Scrawled, on the back, This is you. Love, N.

How that astonished me ! I am pink now, and fat.
Becker's Self Portrait is my new lie.

All winter the Angel of Death has dogged me
across the floe, locum tenens for my AWOL muse.
She doodles arcades of moons on my sheets.
An inkspatter spoor leads from porch rail to clothesline,
and a fine, black-tipped down flocks my baseboards.
Annoyed, my husband calls me “glandular.”
For “morbid” he malaprops “moribund,”
for gorge, “gouge.” My alienist diagnosed
nostalgie de boue. My father told me so.

At deathbeds, to keep from sinking,
I stare at teeth. When the nurses turn their backs
I pocket chits of blue code, the torsades
and fibrillations, agonal blips and asystoles
the stylus burned onto the spilling grid,
a fingernail on run-out time.
Beneath the sisters’ rule and tutelage,
my alphabet devolves: Palmer curve,
flatline, dot. Pronunciation: Dead.

As you might expect, I’m drinking again.
Last night, on the bathroom floor, I dreamed
of a mannikin whispering, “Le luth, le luth,”
or it could have been “La lutte, la lutte.”
I woke to a gull stalled in an updraft,
a crooked Casseopeia. The icicles pointed up.
By noon the neighbor’s bullish boys
had trampled the fresh snow to hemoglobin.
My husband turns his eyes from Becker’s breasts,
as I do from mine. Pulpy and moot as glib fruits.

Although unpracticed in Annunciation,
my Angel obliged, grackling off key on a bent horn.
I flubbed my lines. Stumbled at "handmaid"
and improvised Daylight unbinds the darkness
of the world. Turn off the lights so I can see.
There was a jar in Massachu.

I wish you could see the lozenges of light
that quiver on the muddy wallpaper
when ice and glass fracture the afternoon.
They iridesce, spectral fish in shallows.
N., something like them minnows in me now,
a drop of light, subtle, precarious, stained red
by perilous passage. My little light-fish.

You’d redline that. Pisciculus lucis. Any better ?
I remember how you sent me scavenging
for “tittivate.” I scoured my books for days,
neglecting Gray, almost flunking out,
until it winked back from Stevens’ Monocle
You fished “scratched isinglass” out of Bishop in an hour,
then aced the anatomy practicum.
Embryology’s old saw rasps through my head:
ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.
You called it “fishy” and “sentimental,”
like a coincidence of birthdays or given names,
of Februaries, Paulas and conceptions.
A wilderness of sentiment encroaches.
Watch me submit.


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