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).