at Length

Two Poems

—Camille Guthrie


Art is a naked boy waiting for permission to move
High art is a twenty dollar ticket times four
For me a friend and the kids to have an outing
A painting is a lush woman kneeling naked
Before us ripe breasts pushed forward
Pleased in her to-be-lookatedness
My daughter says Yuck
Everything by Renoir displeases my friend
Who prefers the world of Modernism
I tell my son to count how many naked people he sees
As we wander through the spacious galleries
Flesh captured in hushed brushy hues
Art is a series of paintings of French women reading
Which I like because I, too, like French novels and alone time
Yet I would not like a man peeking at me while I read Proust
Art is a nice lunch of curried carrot soup with pepitas
A large salad of local feta and foraged fiddleheads
That my friend and I together for twenty years share
Six-dollar grilled cheese for the kids with chips
Three-dollar sparkling waters also from France
My old friend smiles at me ironically
About all the bodies on display
Which bore the kids and she frowns
At Slave Market (1866) in which four men
Painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Examine a nude young woman in a dingy courtyard
Her lit body faces us she wears a necklace
With one hand the man in the richest robes tilts
Her head towards him and the other
Pokes two long fingers into her mouth
To test her teeth or her docility
The other women sit in a pile on the ground
A child squirms from their arms
A European fantasy of rape that allows
The viewer to frown upon faraway slavery
Outlawed in Europe by then so says
The curator’s note, and the worst detail
For me is that her pussy is bare
A day off takes two visits to the gift shop
To ponder if we need a puzzle of Van Gogh’s face
Or a thirty-dollar rubber necklace in cerulean
An apron of The Scream or a Rembrandt tote
Fine art is a woman draped in a white cloak
Spreading a sail-like mantle over her face
She gazes down upon a silver censer
To capture the Smoke of Ambergris (1880)
Widely thought to be an aphrodisiac
A pale white wax that sperm whales vomit up
A fragrant bile duct secretion used in lotions and food
This I know from reading Moby-Dick
Alone in my bedroom with no man watching me
Or sticking his fingers into my mouth
Unless given explicit permission
Begun in Tangier and finished in Paris
Acquired by the museum in 1914
John Singer Sargent’s model surely was a prostitute
Art historian Steven Kern says and quotes Henry James
“I know not who this stately Mohammedan may be,
Not in what mysterious domestic or religious rite
She may be engaged; but in her plastered arcade,
Which shines in the Eastern light, she is beautiful
And memorable. The picture is exquisite,
A radiant effect of white upon white,
Of similar but discriminating tones.” Kern
Explains that this mix of North African
Costumes and objects is a Western fantasy
He says, “The scene must be viewed
as an imaginary one” What captures me
Is the trajectory of her slender pinkie escaping
From the tip of her weighted hood and her calm arm
Vanishing into the complexity of her sleeve
What worries me is the grave silver necklace
Slung heavily across her breast
Orientalism to delight the family who collected it
And left it to enchant the visitors to their museum
Recently renovated for plenty-million dollars
For a relaxing afternoon, then to sit on the terrace
And take a walk through the sculptured grounds
I go out for a stroll with my kids
So my friend can look carefully at the Van Goghs
A storm over a field has snatched her attention
The birds she later says hurt her feelings
Under the trees on the needled path
My son hurls rocks at the tall trunks
My daughter follows chipmunks
My thoughts fill up with the one Rembrandt
Man Reading (1648) in its own dimly-lit room
What thrills me is his thick index finger roughly
Stuck into the book to keep his place and the metal pin
Struck through his rumpled black jacket
And his riotous whiskers, which prove
That the exquisite always exists in the particulars
Beneath his assertive dark hat
The man’s left brow dips in concentration
His eyes focus on the warmly-colored soft paper
His mouth quiet he is reading he is in another world
Rembrandt van Rijn’s tender disgruntledness
Makes me feel wildly pleased I feel
Delighted to have been in its proximity
A few minutes to stare at a man reading
While my children get antsy and move on
Bored by the dull browns that say nothing to them
To me he says that life is utterly disappointing
Even if you are fucking Rembrandt
So you may as well read a good book
And for crying out loud
Be precise about whatever you do
I find it powerfully comforting
Since I’m middle-aged and utterly disappointed
Divorced with a part-time job no savings
My future family collection made up of
My Little Ponies Warhammer guys Legos
And a Hilma af Klint poster I ordered from the internet
I love its pastel spiritual circles and flower infinitude
Here I am looking at fine art today
With my two beautiful children
Who think I’m a bitch much of the time
I buy them a pricey rainbow of pencils
So I’ve done something right, but I keep thinking
As we drive home about Snake Charmer (c.1879)
by Jean-Léon Gérôme in which stands
A naked boy waiting neatly on a rug
Before a ragtag crowd huddled against
A wall in a blue-tiled room
Inspired by one in a palace in Istanbul
The stone floor like one in a Cairo mosque
With “a mishmash of clothing and weapons”
Says the museum’s description
This boy who looks ten has seized
The attention of the onlookers by sporting
A thick snake wrapped round one shoulder
And his waist with one small hand he holds
Up the creature’s head with the other its tail
Performing to the music of a seated boney flutist
The white-bearded leader glares
As he lounges in his robes for the show
His long sword slung from his crotch
Gérôme certainly the dick of this family collection
Traveled Egypt and “ensured his success”
By centering his main shot
On the soft butt of the boy
My son tosses more rocks against the trees
On the path back to the museum
I’m scared they will ricochet and hit us
In the head we will be concussed
And not be able to look at any more paintings
My friend will have to drive us to the ER
I’m lucky we have family insurance
We won’t be sent away we won’t bleed to death
We won’t be mishandled we won’t be sold
I don’t want my children to stand
Naked before a cruel man to be offered
To travelers for their pleasure
Or to rich people to be their servants
To be used and beaten and destroyed
Like the thousands of Syrian children
Gone missing in Europe
So says The Guardian online
An unbearably cruel fact
“The scene must be viewed
as an imaginary one” does not apply here
I read this news and go about my day
Taking my family on a lovely outing
I cannot even bear for my children to be sad
To be slightly cold or the least bit hungry
Even if I am the worst one in their lives
Doing the most damage as mothers are said to do
I don’t even want them to be bored
Art is looking at these things
For two hours on a Saturday.


You know the Other Victorians?
The ones Foucault writes about in The History of Sexuality
The “frauds against procreation” who did “acts contrary to nature”
Like Michael Field, a Victorian gentleman poet
Who wrote 27 verse plays & 8 volumes of poetry
Who is not a man at all
But two women, an Englishwoman and her niece
And their chow dog they adored
They wrote poems about flowers pussy and the patriarchy
What else are you doing to do
When you are the Other Victorians
In whose hearts burn a fervent heat
And Virginia Woolf is only a Victorian baby in a bonnet
So cannot yet measure your entangled violence?

Katharine Bradley (1846-1914)
Lost her dad at two and when her mom died
She went to college in Cambridge & Paris
Then joined Ruskin’s Guild of Saint George
A small utopian society for art snobs
Kat pissed off Ruskin when she wrote to tell him
She lost God but found a Skye Terrier
Annoying Ruskin was necessary defiance, I’m sure
Look at what he did to pretty Effie Grey
Married her and then ignored and bullied her
Because a woman’s body wasn’t what he expected
Effie got a divorce due to his “incurable impotency”
And made off with a Pre-Raphaelite painter
What else can you do, Kat? When they call you
“An aberration of the genetic instinct”
And make you “an object of analysis and target of intervention”
You adopt your niece Edith Cooper (1862-1913)
When her mother dies, adopt a joint pseudonym
Properly anonymous and vaguely pastoral
To write poems like “Maids not to you my mind doth change”
In which between women exists “manifold desire”
Sounding a lot like French Feminist theory of the 70s
Together you write, “Men I defy, allure, estrange,
Prostrate, make bond or free”
Back to your medieval craft guild, John

What can you do?
When sex and its effects are to be “pursued
Down to their slenderest ramifications”
By doctors, clergy, police
You are financially independent that helps
Working side by side you wrote verse plays
Loyalty or Love, The Tragic Mary, or Attila, My Attila
And poems about sex behind parquet doors
Beneath bedclothes, under surveillance
Hiding from those other Victorians
Weeping over Tennyson in ferny parlors
You describe a girl with her “lips apart,
like aspen-leaflets trembling in the breeze”
Trembling! Leaflets! So lovely! So Victorian!
Now your “souls so knit, / I leave a page half-writ”
For a quickie in the hedges of St. James’ park

Robert Browning praised Michael Field’s work
Edith wrote to him about Katherine
“She is my senior, by but fifteen years
She has lived with me, taught me, encouraged me
And joined me to her poetic life”
An industrious writing team taking the scene by storm
With books of poems like Wild Honey from Various Thyme
Mystic Trees
, and Poems of Adoration
Mixing with the heavies of the nineties
The Aestheticists, Pater, Wilde, young Yeats
Friends called you The Michaels, The Field, The Michael Fields
Yet you fought with Aubrey Beardsley
Over his “depraved” art, which is disappointing
Because I want interesting Victorian artists to get along
The Field begged Browning not to reveal their secret
Edith wrote that “would indeed be utter ruin to us”
“We have many things to say that the world
Will not tolerate from a woman’s lips”
They must maintain the disguise
A job of many Other Victorians
Unless you wanted to go the way of Wilde
Sentenced to two years’ hard labor
For “gross indecency” for the “Love that dare not speak its name”
He had to walk a treadmill pick oakum wear a hood
The wit of Europe called CC3, the number of his cell
Hunger, illness, and injury destroying his health
Upon release, he sailed for France never to return home
And never saw his sons again
His horrid young boyfriend betrayed him
And he died sick and broken, exiled to a filthy hotel
The Michael Fields mourned Wilde
So glam and sparkling, a raging diamond
A thousand vicious Victorian judges burn
In hell for harming him!

In the poem “Unbosoming” your breast “is rent
With the burthen and strain of its great content”
And the love breeding in your heart
Is like a “thousand vermilion-beads
That push, and riot, and squeeze, and clip”
And flowers have a “tremulous, bowery fold”
As if from Luce Irigaray’s This Sex Which is Not One
My best friend, a real live lesbian
Thinks this poem is a little silly, which it probably is
She says I wish I were a lesbian, probably true
In that stupid way straight girls think it’s easier
To date women rather than men
As if the patriarchy doesn’t wreck us all
But she finds Michael Field moving
Knowing what it’s like to live hidden even from yourself
To walk into the grocery store at thirteen
And hear someone say, What is that?
To have your father say your dead mother
Would not have liked you to be gay
To not come out until after college
And finally to decide to live revealed

Michael Field, you dedicated your first book Long Ago
To Sappho, a girl’s best ancient friend
In the preface you said, “Devoutly as the fiery-bosomed Greek
Turned in her anguish to Aphrodite
To accomplish her heart’s desires
I have turned to the one woman
Who has dared to speak unfalteringly
Of the fearful mastery of love”
Another problem for Other Victorians
For all of us really, the fearful mastery of love
But especially hard for them
Locked up in asylums, sent to penal colonies & houses of correction
Punished for “moral folly” and “physical imbalance”
Or sentenced to bed like Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Or Woolf and most everybody dies tragically
The poor Brontës all died so terribly
What a second novel Emily would have written! So amazing!
Could her sister really have burned it? So unfair!
Emily had a dog named Keeper
(And so did my real life lesbian best friend)
And a falcon named Hero, now I’m distracted
By my desire to make the past
Palatable and comprehensible
Surely one of Power/Knowledge’s microtechniques

What on earth are you supposed to do?
You’re not the Lady of Shalott
Not trapped in a tower surrounded by a moat
Stuck inside to work on your weird weavings
Not under a vague curse that makes you
Kill yourself like a Victorian performance artist
The second you see Lancelot galloping outside
You bedeck your boat with flowers to float
Down to Camelot and perish on the spot
Only for Lancelot to say, “She has a pretty face”
But you too are “half sick of shadows”
You’re not Christina Rossetti either
Who rejects her suitors with a “No thank you, John”
And rejects chess, too, why not? So boring
And attends to fallen women at a prison
And writes lesbian incest poems about goblins
In which sisters lick each other’s faces
A Victorian badass that Christina
And Woolf is just a girl when you are writing
Her mother is dying and abandoning her
To her stepbrothers with their roving hands
And it’s before Freud says we’re all bisexual
Some more than others clearly
Long before Gertrude and Alice walk Basket around Paris
Who’s better? Their dog or yours? Yours
You’re Michael Field, dammit
You parade him through London’s parks
Write a book of poems for him, Whym Chow: Flame of Love
In class one of my student asks why all lesbians love dogs
I’m taken aback, but he explains his two moms
Have always had dogs & all their friends too
But all my lesbian friends adore cats, I protest
My best friend thinks this is funny
She has two cats, thank you, John

What are you going to do?
Publish your poems that claim
“If thou are beloved, oh then
Fear no grief from mortal man”
But it isn’t true, Edith’s dad disapproves
Of your love so she suffers from what Foucault
Says, “There is not one but many silences”
And when he dies, you buy a grand old house
With the money and when your dog dies
You both convert to Roman Catholicism
Get caught up in the majesty of it all
The rituals, candles, velvets, the dark places
And Katherine you don’t say anything
When Edith gets cancer and you do, too
You hold her tremulous hand and wipe her brow
Stay up reading to her when she can’t sleep for the pain
To ease her tempestuous heart
Perhaps reading H.D. Imagiste who just published
Her first poems also inspired by Sappho
And who would live in London with her wife during the Blitz
And Kat, you die just eight months after Edith dies
As the Suffragettes bomb churches
The Great War comes marching
And everybody will die those Other Victorians
Not just the frail crazy pretty ladies floating
Down the river with flowers trailing from their fingers
But two women bedside gazing at each other
Surrounded by the fruits of their labor
What are you going to do?
Write poems and resist silence and death

Camille Guthrie is the author of Articulated Lair: Poems for Louise Bourgeois (2013), In Captivity (2006), and The Master Thief (2000), all published by Subpress. She has two chapbooks, Defending Oneself (Beard of Bees) and People Feel with Their Hearts, included in the Another Instance chapbook series (2011). Her poems have appeared in such journals and websites as the Academy of American Poet’s Poem-a-Day series, Chicago Review, Conjunctions, Fence, No: a Journal of the Arts, Radical Society. She has written about poetry for the Poetry Foundation’s blog Harriet and for The Huffington Post. She lives in upstate New York with her two kids and teaches literature at Bennington College.