A WOMAN'S WORK
"She is hanging the evidence of her domestic
virtue in the sunshine for all to see."
-- 1994 curatorial comment on John Sloan's 1912 painting, A Woman's Work
It is Monday. Not yet dawn.
All across America, the women
are willing themselves awake, fumbling
into their complicated garments,
fastening hooks and eyes,
sighing into the blue prospect
On Monday, virtue is made
concrete and commonplace as
bedlinens and undergarments
as the women rise in half-light
white from dark from pattern.
They rise to haul water to fire
then back, steaming and hissing,
to copper tubs. Gallon by gallon.
All day they lean into the damp
embrace, knead and rub.
Until their hands bleed.
Until they cannot feel their arms.
From his studio window, the painter observes
the langours of summer afternoon
in the park below --
fortunate wives, heiresses
tilting their parasols into the wind.
Then a woman emerges
onto a fire escape, close enough
to call to. She turns
her face toward the sun, drinks in
her allotment of light,
slatted and crosshatched by shadow.
He sketches to capture that gesture.
And later, at the canvas,
the privilege of color, elaborating
a brightness, a pattern
in the figure. But the colorless
memory finally guides his hand:
He stresses the line
of her crumpled silhouette
as she bent between clothesline
and basket, pinning up her small virtues
like so many banners.
It is the hour of convergences.
My father enters the nest
of worry, humming,
and I think of the bee hovering
at the fevered hive.
It is always a question of arrival.
We are thick with the honey
of worry and succour,
and when my father enters humming
his casual tune of forgetfulness,
All afternoon my mother has labored
over the broth
of longevity, love's medicinal.
it's laced with the essence
of a grief swallowed and withheld,
a taste like clove, earth and resin.
How pungent this life:
each converging, each day's table
laid deliberately with the familiar,
formal figments so we are bound
husband and wife father and mother,
as an infant or burden is lashed
tightly to the body, against danger
for a journey,
each step into the sweet, tenuous
flow of the quotidian
from which one of us already falls
Dawn. Below Odysseus'
sea, unmarred as mirror-glass.
Not one porpoise,
not one rudder, or wing,
seams the surface.
Above, the gods could appear
in morning's panoply
so clear is their intention.
Thus the summoning of elements
out of chaos,
then the wrestling and merging
of inchoate forms
is still palpable
in the precipitate, black cliff-face
flung down towards the sea,
the sea rushing back in embrace.
As I climb the promontory,
I see myself
in the encompassing dream --
TO MY FATHER IN HIS BYZANTIUM
In this incongruous season
of stripped branch and occasional blossom,
I still thrive, divided, drawn
to antipodes, two quarrelsome poles.
It is a betrayal
that the trees should unclench
these white and pinkish blossoms
delivering a joy beyond all reason:
for their very roots begin,
draw sustenance from the underground
profusion you do -- moldering
web and filament, ooze and spore --
a Byzantium of matter
In such magnificent infinity now
you mock all praise, all apology:
like nothing else.
THE PAINTER'S INTIMATIONS OF MORTALITY
In his final days, Klee
sees the self hung
on the scaffold of his body
like a loose tarp, or a kite
skidding into the open,
luminous wind. And
all the colors he has known
back into the spectrum.
But here on the last
canvas, he figures
his death not as an angel
into nothing, but as a young girl --
or mourner --
her face a bewildered moon,
a pale sorrow.