Saturday, April 24, 2010

Invocation of the Muse

Like the epic poets of old, I begin with a plea that the powers-that-be will play some nurturing role in getting my creative juices flowing. Here's a poem that I wrote last spring while studying abroad in Barbados, at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies. One night, I spent hours in the library poring over books of Frida Kahlo's paintings. I had never thought much about her before, but there was something arresting about her artwork. Maybe it was her juxtaposition of horror and luminous beauty. But I think, in a broader way, I was just responding to her as a fellow female artist.

Letter to Frida

I explore your face
where mannish time has wrought its wonders:
your lips vulgar like a peony,
your hair in braids like loaves of bread.

Rather than oak, mahogany, or maple,
you framed yourself in a riot of flowers,
a menagerie of birds.
Brightness engulfs you,
beaks edging over collarbones,
tendrils of vines curling like afterimages. Look,

I’m not here to talk about Diego
or the wise naïveté of your gun-bright oeuvre.
When I was a child, I wished I could play dress-up
with Anne Frank. Folded on the floor
by the mirror of my bedroom window,
I drank her diary like friendship.
Dear Kitty, I wrote hundreds of times,
seeking, if nothing else, to replicate that
self-sufficient kinship, and then,
Dear Anne, I have read your work.
You are just like me in all the ways that matter.
We could linger in the welcoming rooms of the world,
draw our fingers over their frosty windows,
lose ourselves in their capacious chairs.

After a while, my overtures seemed stupid.
But journals are never enough. Journals are
signals sent out for nonexistent ships,
disbelieving in the transmission of messages.
I stockpiled my charlatan letters, my idiot diaries,
but Anne fell away from me like your frame
retreats from you like the waves.

This is in recognition that we share something
in darkness—not just our horror dreams, our obsession
with self-portraiture and the anatomy of self,
but our surrealism, our habitual pessimism,
our penchant for melodrama, our conviction that pain,
under duress of art, can be other than itself.

In our world of night,
phosphenes melt into outlines of bats’ wings,
like your eyebrows, and black rivers of oil flow
in dark bedrooms, wending near our hair,
preparing to ignite.

Your skin is a lemon peel, the yellow flowers
in your hair like suns, or flames, or sea anemones.
You, despairing, are a caveat of what I should not be.
Your fruit is too dark for me. Still, I, cautious, intrigued,
hover my hand over the surface of your pristine mirrors.
You, beguiling, dangerous, never say autorretrato to me.