Henri Rousseau, oil on canvas, 1897
The melody of the lute lured the big cat. Fearless, the gypsy
offered him water from her cupped hands. Then, she bid the lion
stay, sang of unrequited love, hardship, the gypsy’s lot, how she’d
roamed thick forest, searing desert, cast out from kumpania, family.
At dusk, she read the lion’s paw and lied to him, as she does to all
not of her kind, whispered, if he stayed by her, she knew a way
from these barren dunes to a great savanna filled with creatures
to sate his appetite. He could kill a fatty ewe, she’d roast it, together
they would eat it to their liking. No misgivings about taking beast
as companion. Lion, she said, we’ll travel like the water. No foot-
prints, no dream of home, just life along the lungo drom, long road.
So it is with survival: one stands guard, one sleeps.
The Empire of Light, II
René Magritte, oil on canvas, 1950
a single street lamp, not illuminating anything,
the street’s bathed in darkness, and I’m running
and stumble, and there’s a house, maybe two,
maybe three, I lose count as I’m running,
out of breath now, and light from a window, here
and there, but the street is deserted, no people,
no cars, not even a stray cat, and yet behind
one of those closed doors may be what I’m trying
to reach, but I can’t stop to find out, so I keep
on running, and will myself not to look up,
because over the trees, above this desolate street,
there’s a bright blue sky frothy with clouds, and
if I could get a good running start, I could lift off
and soar, leave this endless street where no one
goes out, not for a smoke or to walk their dog,
and if I stay steady, I could float forever
in perpetual day, but I know that’s not what I am
looking for, so if I can reach the corner,
I’ve got a hunch that on the next street, day is
day and night’s night, and with my legs aching,
I’d settle for that, so I keep on running, past
the same windows, same trees, still hopeful
I’ll make it, because as I said at the start,
my nightmares are like that.
Self Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle
Arnold Böcklin, oil on canvas, 1872
San Domenica di Fiesole
I’ve been here six weeks now,
sit under the portico writing.
A small, feisty dog doesn’t approve,
escapes to nip at me,
oblivious to the caretaker’s broom.
I often watch Il Duomo nesting
in low morning mist,
while orange-tiled roofs, cypress and fir
angle down hillsides.
Potted lemon trees ring the courtyard
just as you drew them.
The crumbing Etruscan wall holds,
the path overgrown with lichen
and moss. Perhaps in the shadows,
one, maybe two,
of your ebullient mythical creatures.
A young man brings fresh-killed
chickens, not plucked.
Basta, I say, no more, but he returns
again and again.
How persistent he is, Herr Böcklin,
as I imagine you
in your studio, palette and brush
*Böcklin’s home in Italy, late 19th century;
The Absinthe Drinker
after a painting by Edgar Degas, 1876
He’d run off, left everything behind, me waiting
by the window imagining him dead,
the landlady banging on the door for the rent.
I was still in love with a pile of bones.
Ah, hot coffee to lift my spirits, when a stranger
sat down across from me without asking,
stared until I said, Do you like what you see?
You have just the expression I’m looking for.
Dressed like a gentlemen, he said he was
was an artist in need of a model. His nose slid
like a banana peel and dark hollow eyes,
not my sort. I liked my men brawny and blue-eyed.
I was flattered but directly I told him,
Mind you, I won’t take my clothes off to which
he replied that I just had to sit at a table
in his studio with that look, as if I had a whole lot
of troubles, and I said, You got that right,
but what’s in it for me? He offered enough money
to pay all my back rent and a month ahead.
How could I refuse? I came to his studio once
for a pencil sketch; another time,
he took out his brushes but wouldn’t show me
what he’d done. When it’s finished, he said.
The last time he poured me a cup of tea, then
pulled the cloth off the easel.
That’s me, all dolled up in a silly hat I’d never wear.
As for the absinthe, he’d added that later.
If he’d asked, I’d have said, Never touched a drop,
seen what happens to folks who don’t stop.
I had more troubles by then; his money ran out,
and that dirty man with the beard and pipe
sitting next to me? Never laid eyes on him before.
I don’t think this artist has much
of a future. Who’d buy such a gloomy picture?