Jana Harris ~ Poems

The Horse Fair, poems on the life and art of French ani­maliere Rosa Bonheur (1822–99). Part psy­cho-biog­ra­phy, part spec­u­la­tion and intu­ition, these linked dra­mat­ic mono­logues probe themes of gen­der, class, and artis­tic genius against the back­ground of 19th Century Paris & envi­rons. –Jana Harris

Paris, 1829–1834

Father Gone a Year in Search of Work and a Religion to Bite
His Teeth into; Paris, 1829

(Rosa Bonheur, b. 1822)

A bet­ter life.
Bordeaux to Paris
–two days, three nights–
too long a car­riage ride
for me, a six-year-old, my mother,
lit­tle Auguste and ‘Dodore.
The chill on my arms
made me ask: the griz­zled horizon,
was that what death looked like?
The sky a com­fort­less streak,
nar­row cob­bled car­riage­ways, cliffs
of soot-stained build­ings, avenues
like gut­ter troughs, everything
the many tinc­tures of lead
leach­ing away all joy.

Come night, no stars.

Dampness drift­ed up stone stairs
with street clan­gor so raucous
my head hurt–the July Revolution,
can­non shot rat­tling our door the day
bebe Juliette was born. We were
one step ahead of the squeal
of cholera carts and afraid;
when I heard the slow clomp
of hooves, I ran into the carriageway
to hear the heave and blow.

Father found few pupils and fewer
por­trait sit­tings, but hap­pened upon
a monastery of arti­san apostles.
“A new epoch!” sang the Saint-Simonians:
an end to aris­toc­ra­cy, an androg­y­nous god,
soon the Coming of a female Messiah.

Girls not sent to school, but
I was enrolled with my brothers
at Pere Antin’s school;
Father taught for tuition. Bored,
I drew ani­mal cartoons
and learned to use my fists
thrust just below the heart.
I was short and stout and fast and wore
brown trousers beneath my check­ered skirt.

In class I stood in a corner.
My lunch, one cup of water,
forced mem­o­ry after memory
of sheep breath­ing, the tiny thump
of rab­bit feet padding across
our barn­yard in Bordeaux.
Chastised, swat­ted, threatened;
my writ­ing hand cun­ning as a fox
always found a way.
If I lost the ani­mals, I lost the world;
so I drew them in the air.

After school I took my fits,
my doo­dling, my lingo
–all red in tooth and claw–
and mar­shalled troops
jeer­ing at things puny
and pecu­liar in the Place Royal –
that pro­tect­ed child in a push chair,
sal­low skin, green eyeshade—
Mme. Micas’ petite Nanette.

Our first meet­ing, I would regret
for the rest of my life.


Because Mere was Now–and for Always– an Angel
on My Shoulder, I Would Never Again Let My Hair Grow
Longer Than My Chin; Paris 1833

(Rosa Bonheur, b. 1822)

Who would take care of my curls?
Even when Tante brushed it,
rip­ping out snarls, a torture;
even plait­ed it poked
from my head like straw.
Was it she or Nurse who sheared it off?

Tante taught school and gave us
to Mere Catherine in the Champs-Élysées
dur­ing the week. Here the gardens
of the con­vent danced
with aro­mas of Bordeaux–
fig trees, mock orange, ole­an­der. On Sunday
men rode down the avenue
dressed as if for a coronation.
The few ladies ahorse­back sat
pre­car­i­ous­ly, legs to one side,
as if on a park bench.

I want a horse, I told Tante
who scoffed: To top­ple from
and be trod upon?
Never, nev­er, never;
I would ride astride like Joan of Arc!

And look what became of her,
admon­ished the cho­rus. What
was wrong with me?
Part girl, most­ly beast! But
being such, I wasn’t fool­ish enough
to lead an army into battle.
The only voice I lis­tened to
was my own.

I began to draw hors­es in the gravel
on gar­den paths, in the dust,
on scraps of newsprint,
the frontispiece
of Holy Bibles. I wanted
to draw hors­es with eyes
I could reach into and touch
the deep pools of their souls.

But where is the groom?
Tante ques­tioned, a horse
sans han­dler makes no sense.

I was the rid­er. Astride,
with my cropped hair, not only
would I, Rosa, chris­tened Rosalie,
ride taller, fleeter, stronger
to the potter’s field where,
on the first of May, ma belle Mere
had been dumped in a com­mon grave,
but on beyond the stilled tongues
of the dead to where I could again
hear sheep breathe,
smell their grassy breath and

noth­ing more.


So that You Could Earn Your Keep and Lead a Decent Life”
Paris, 1834

(Rosa Bonheur, 1822)

How well I remem­ber Pere’s distress
at young chil­dren to care for.
His fel­low sem­i­nar­i­ans missioned
to the wind—a canal at Suez,
a rail­road sys­tem stretching
all the way to Algiers.

After the smoke cleared
from the wreck­age of his family,
Father took us to live with him
on the Quai de l’Ecole.
The floor of his stu­dio, aglitter
with coins tossed into its corners
for safe keep­ing. He cared not
a cen­time for career or money.

Baby Juju sent to Bordeaux,
the boys in board­ing school
to train as teachers–
being an artist, Pere assured,
was no way to earn a living.

Me, he apprenticed
to a dress­mak­er, Mm. Ganiford.
Along with Mere’s jew­el-like hands,
sure­ly I’d inher­it­ed her finesse
with nee­dle and thread. But
I much pre­ferred sit­ting at Pere’s table
in the Café Parnassus, listening
to Saint-Simonians, to sitting
at a seamstress’s sideboard
stitch­ing hems.

They sought my opinion:
Was George Sand the new messiah?
Sometimes, I told them, I preferred
Father’s leather-bound Cervantes.
And the appeal of Don Quixote?
–they quizzed as if I were an equal.

At Mme. Ganiford’s atelier
I sat with my head bowed,
my tongue tied, and my fin­gers bedeviled,
pricked and bleed­ing on priceless
white Chinese fab­ric. I couldn’t
make it clear fast enough that I should
not be trust­ed with some­thing sharp
as scis­sors and escaped to the privy, then
to Madame’s husband’s shop
where I turned the lathe
as he fash­ioned caps for muzzleloaders.
An insur­rec­tion? Monsieur blanched
pale as the bridal silk I’d ruined.

What could Pere do, but school me himself?

Lessons were spo­radic. We made up
sto­ries about Sancho Panza.
I joust­ed in the street with the sons
of his monas­tic brethren.
With Pere’s palettes as shields, brushes
and maul­sticks for swords,
I slew them all, a smattering
of pre­cious oxblood pigment
bat­tle-marred their faces.

To neigh­bor­hood gossips,
I was a boy in girl’s clothing,
to Tante I was a misfit
who drew hors­es unceasingly.
But to Father, I was a pearl.
And to his brethren, my god fathers,
–all thinkers and artists, their dreams
for­ev­er infect­ing my reveries–
I was a mascot.

In the street, whether our parents
were high born or low
we were all chil­dren of the children
of the Revolution.
The glo­ri­ous orange and violet
of a Marais sunrise
demand­ed our pres­ence each morning.

The artist father of a lit­tle boy
I slew dai­ly paint­ed my portrait:
Marie Rosalie ragamuffin–one day
Europe’s great­est animaliere.
[stan­za break]
The youngest mite—no big­ger than
a guppy—who, again and again,
I mimed stab­bing in the heart
with Pere’s palette knife?
The future President
of the Republic of France.


E. Geoffroy St. Hilaire Commissions Father to Illustrate
the Flora and Fauna of the Jardin des Plants; Paris, 1834

(Rosa Bonheur, b. 1822)

Enrolled in what­ev­er board­ing school
that would have me, except in drawing,
always at the bot­tom of my class.
At Mm. and Mme. Gilbert’s Academy
I could not sit still or listen,
and spent my time
draw­ing the zoo residents
of the Jardin des Plants
–the famous Abyssinian Giraffe
with her gummed winged raincoat—
and when not daydreaming
about my own menagerie,
car­i­ca­tures of all of my teachers.

I was a char­i­ty student
with­out praise or pock­et money.
Abundantly clear which utensils
were mine; dull tin knives,
sharp-edged tin spoons.

The oth­er lit­tle misses
ate off hand-paint­ed porcelain
using engraved sil­ver flatware.

My clothes made of rough flax,
my shawl of loose-weave wool
looked as if moths had eat­en it.
Trousers instead of pantaloons,
no ruf­fles, no bro­cade aprons,
my dress more beige than white.

Mme. Gilbert swooned over
the oth­ers’ hats and ribbons:
Si belle et intel­li­gente, words she never
spent on me.

I want­ed to be nothing
like them; pret­ty and smart
had not saved my mother.

My car­i­ca­tures of Monsieur and Madam
enthralled my class­mates. I tied each
to a thread, chewed my arith­metic practice
into paste, threw it skyward
and hoped it stuck, hang­ing teacher
from the ceiling.

At home Father found fraternity
in the Knights Templar. One weekend
he took me to the Court of Miracles.
Bestowed with wood­en sword
and card­board sheath,
I was bap­tized Petite Templiere.
Sleepless on my school cot, I kept
these new trea­sures beneath my bed.

One full moon, I buck­led the saber
around my waist, then can­tered downstairs
to meet infi­dels camped
in the Gilberts’ gar­den. With flourish,
I decap­i­tat­ed every come­ly hollyhock.

Expelled before breakfast,
Father took me home to set­tle my fate.
He put paper and pencils,
a plas­ter cast of a sheep in front of me.
“Since the only thing you can do
is draw, these are your tools
from now on.”

My pun­ish­ment bloomed
in my heart. I grasped
a pen­cil: my weapon, my portal,
my polestar. From now on

my future was spun from light.


Jana Harris teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the U of Washington and at the Writer’s Workshop in Seattle. She is edi­tor and founder of Switched-on Gutenberg. Most recent pub­li­ca­tions: You Haven’t Asked About My Wedding or What I Wore; Poems of Courtship on the American Frontier (U of Alaska Press) and the mem­oir, Horses Never Lie about Love (Simon & Schuster).