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
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,
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
“So that You Could Earn Your Keep and Lead a Decent Life”
(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
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.
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).