On a stack of monitors in the Guggenheim’s
concrete cathedral, a woman in white
scrubs a skeleton with a rough brush,
recalling, the placard says, the death
rites performed by Tibetan monks.
She directs the force of her narrow limbs
like she is playing a giant stringed instrument,
virtuoso in a white gown, somehow gaudily austere.
In Tibet, a corpse is being prepared
on a mountaintop by laughing men
who set tables for birds.
At the hands she must pause, moving
her grooved thumbs through the grooves
of thumbs, stubborn joint to stubborn joint.
Her soapy fingers mesmerize, the body remembering
a truth she has forgotten, the unyielding grime
of the hand forcing every counterpart in her
to forget its garish purpose, neglect the white dress.
Somewhere in the museum of her body,
a picture of her own death is being hung.
LOVE SONG FOR GEORGIA O'KEEFFE IN 350 PARTS
“When I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me—some of them more than sixty years ago—I wonder who that person is. It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives…His idea of a portrait was not just one picture.”
A hand, a breast.
He’d learned something of her
fastidious curvature before he ever saw her.
Fell in love with the paintings he’d hung
in his gallery before the bony creature appeared
in New York to demand he take them down.
In the early ones, he’s still married
to another woman, still making pictures the old way.
He wasn’t subtle—a moralist,
German-trained, he liked angles
and machinery. No wonder
he loved her hands, they had
a tender implacable logic
of their own, the way he must
have imagined law.
He loved to take her in the afternoon,
in the little studio West of the park,
when the light was best.
There, among her easels and things,
she and the work were of one body.
This is what it’s like to be loved, not perfectly,
The way he must have loved
her dormant missile of a body,
to never make her look
like a painting.
Degas spent his whole life making pictures of women,
and found, by the end, some continuous poetry between them.
Stieglitz spent his whole life making pictures of one woman,
and found something closer to religion.
Somewhere, he forgot
the difference between discovery
and creation, the turning back
of the sheets and the violent possibility
of the blank canvas. To think
he could uncover the body,
and not the woman. This is a portrait
of love in a violent century.
This is the difference
between a romance and a love story—
the way he hated
her big black Model T.
The way her hands
on that hubcap had the threatening
magic of her desert pictures,
made far away from him.
The way the portrait was never
quite finished. The way she just
for Saartjie Baartman
domestic violence, we say. so easy. rising out from the homeplace, seeping into the groundwater. praise how you painted its name across continents, poured forth a river of daughters to sing your real name. praise pap smear and hysteroscopy and episiotomy, all their parts still humming on wet mount slides, all the parts left cut open or festering or ignored by rapists and doctors and husbands. praise the woman who reminds them of you, something inside her ruptured and bleeding in their white emergency room. praise the part of her whose name she will not know until it is taken from her. domus, one home, one violence. praise your labia, entombed in a jar for one-hundred-fifty-seven years. praise the women who fought to bury you in your first soil. praise so many of their own unmarked graves, the flesh from which we carved immortal experiments, the others cut or sterilized for science or sport. praise the branching, shrouded clitoris. you had been dead a century before we ever took its snapshot, knew how far it reached, that rarest orchid, flower they would not see to cut. praise your still undiscovered body, all the parts of you they’ll never find.
In the waiting room, the women
are either pregnant or sad.
Everyone tries hard to make eye contact
with the pregnant ones, kind or hopeful,
which is to say, we will steal joy if we must.
We all hope they will sit in the center
of the room, so that the sad women
can cling to the walls, eyes on their phones
or in their purses until their names are called,
little betrayal by the calm nurse. The women
who are both pregnant and sad, no one looks at,
though the waiting room is full of those
who were or will be like them, which is to say
that these women know that to hurt
is not to understand pain. It seems
as though I should cede the room to them,
though it took a two-hour bus ride
and seven years of wrong doctors
to reach the waiting room. The woman
with a set of instruments and half a hand inside me
says I am doing a great job—which is to say
that this is not my fault. That she knows
how easily the body becomes prison,
butterfly pinned to a slip of Latin, your mother’s
worst fear. How easily you could never be anyone’s
home. How it would take days and days
to pour you out. How it is important
not to look too hard at anyone.