Remember the sculptor you modeled for—
the long afternoons at his estate?
All his precious metals deny my tenses now,
the drift of recollection this depends on,
but I would like to tell you anyway,
give back that day to you as it has come
to linger in me I could begin with proverbs,
or with peacocks: something about poverty
and love and jealousy, the armatures I took
for inspiration. I’d have clothed us all so
truthfully in words. But now I think
that bird, opening the hundred eyes
of its plumage, and the squalls it gave out
all afternoon furnish a better entrance.
Unable to make any literate use
of the pastoral time he’d provided,
I dozed in a hammock, or toured the grounds,
discovering his pieces: a bronze deer
curled up on a brambled hillside,
a four-foot iron locust poised beside a hedge.
He’d rifled creation, as if before the scales
of things had been assigned, and set these
beasts in his cool woods for pleasure.
I began to wonder what he would make
of your earnest face, the difficult moods
of your eyes, the grace you had, undressed.
Of course he would avoid those eyes.
Hadn’t I? I had not even learned to say
what happened as it had, and so I envied
his dominion over surfaces and shadows.
When later he asked me into the studio,
I stared at the sketches and Polaroids
he’d taken of his people, animals, insects—
where did the spirit live in all that flesh?
Huge moths, their wings mooned with azure,
hung in velvet-lined cases on the wall.
Bare-chested like a deckhand, his apprentice
was buffing a peacock of hammered bronze
and copper, its tail furled in a long heavy arc.
Wiping his hands on a smock, the artist smiled,
and said, “Why don’t you walk around it.
I’m letting it take its own course now—
as a writer you know what I mean.”
You had been swimming back into the arms
of your shirt; now I felt your hand
in mine and was grateful. We edged around
the image: too heavy-hipped, I thought.
One arm was crossed behind its back,
the left akimbo, caught in a kind of swagger.
One foot bore five articulated toes; the other
had yet to emerge from plastic wrapping.
Some wasted clay was stuck on the flank.
He had found the fine severity of your gaze,
but the wide, unfocused eyes and parted lips
strained after sound, as if muted in a dream
the figure’s pose did not belong in.
Everything I feared in you was in that stance,
that body declaring itself alone, but love
did seem a way to soothe its empty cry.
I must have said something, but today,
having found the program for the show
in which the cast head alone sold for thousands,
I don’t know what it was. He carefully fit
a bag over the figure. He had to think it over.
For a while. Next Saturday perhaps?
Rain had begun to mutter in the leaves,
and the peacock had strutted for shelter.
Pity took hold of me, for the deer
in the woods—for his presumption and my
own, our attempts to draw the spirit
up to the skin and hold it there,
in pewter, in a blush of poetry or memoir.
This afternoon, looking at your rumpled
dress flung over a chair, I recall
that he meant to clothe the figure,
but it never seemed to work. He moved on
to something different. We moved away.
Eight years later, sunlight burnishes our bed.
And I am still happily abashed to be waiting
on the love your empty dress is promising.
The Pose is from Honest Water (Wesleyan University Press, 1989)