Haunted Matisse & packing light


On the Friday after Thanksgiving, we visited the “Matisse in the 1930s” exhibit in the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts, and there was plenty NOT to like. So many odalisques! The images that stayed with me in a more positive way did so because the way they reflected process struck me as appealingly uncanny. The drawing above is haunted by other visions of the figure–a smudgy sense of layers and alternate possibilities. In the painting below, there’s an unstable relationship between figure and ground as if the world is invading her thinking–but it also reminds me of sketching, how you might draw a table, then draw a chair partly occluding it and have to partly erase the original table lines. Matisse gives us alternate versions in the finished painting: the final vision with remnants of how it got there. At the end of term, I end up talking a lot about revision with student writers, so it moved and intrigued me to consider how certain works of visual art preserve records of their origins.

Often enough, I don’t fully understand the origins of what I write until long after. I had a funny correspondence with a high schooler a couple of months ago, not long after “Prescriptions” was published in Poetry. She asked, “What does it mean?” I knew that I’d drafted “Prescriptions” shortly after my mother’s death; that it was originally longer but I had to pare it down; and that while I was grieving as I wrote it, I was also relieved for my mother that she got to shed some of the harder aspects of her life. It consoled me to imagine her moving back to a state of openness and possibility. As I tried to distill all these thoughts into a short email, I realized there had been a more specific trigger: the hospice nurse advising us to tell our mother that it was okay to let go, if she wanted to; that we were grateful for her years of caring for us but we would be all right without her. She was unresponsive by then, but my siblings and I did, one by one, speaking to her privately. She died that night.

I’m not sure if this standard hospice advice haunts “Prescriptions” for anyone else, but I now realize that the poem is a longer, more layered version of giving my mother permission to die. Strange how I didn’t make that conscious until I had to simplify the poem’s purpose again by explaining it to a teenager.

Life has been a thicket of tasks lately. I know I’ve been complaining plenty about the chores I’m doing as Department Head, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned the work I’m doing toward a happier goal. The kids, my spouse, and I are going to India over the Christmas break. This is FABULOUS. I didn’t think I’d ever get there, but my son’s best friend is from Bengaluru and he offered to help us organize everything, and he’ll be traveling around with us, which basically makes it the trip of a lifetime. He’s generously playing concierge and travel agent and tour guide, making the complex logistics doable, but there has been an astonishing amount to organize all the same. The vaccinations and visas alone…as I dole out the regimen of oral typhoid vaccine, I’m now at the shopping stage, assembling our portable OTC pharmacy plus the right kind of clothes.

I’m a light packer, in general, not liking to lug the world around with me, although I also have needs and habits I pack carefully for, everything from medications to the urgent necessity of a daily dose of dark chocolate. Maybe that’s a bit like how I write. Plan it, weigh it, pare it down, but think hard about what too much efficiency might cost me.

Anyway, no Christmas presents or decorations to organize, hallelujah! And you should see some good pictures in this space after New Years. In the meantime, another kind of gift: Mab Jones just published this review of Poetry’s Possible Worlds in Buzz. She calls it “a profound, and profoundly inspiring, book…Poetry’s Possible Worlds is an absolute must-read; my favourite book on poetry since Mary Oliver’s Handbook, which is saying something.” How did I get so lucky?


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