Sisters in December
He disagreed about the ashes,
so his sisters set out one night
under a good December moon,
without their brother,
to the covered bridge over the Mill
and tossed the earthly bits
that had been their father
into the black water.
On the drive home, exhilarated
by the secret of the send-off,
by the rightness of the location—
(although mutable—those chips
of burnt bone, the silt
of him, has maybe ponded
on its way to the Sound,
as happens with sediment),
one sister gets scared
a guard saw them sneak
onto the bridge—illegal
after sunset—or a camera caught
this giddy made-up funeral—
also illegal—or the pale swoosh
of the sister’s arm
out the small window,
returning her father
as dense gray chalk,
in an arcing slow lob,
to the brook trout
and the riverbed.
Then she is sorry to have brought up
how in the white moonbeam
the ash father glowed
through the shallow current
where the river bottom was black,
where the river margins were black,
where the coral-colored planks
of the bridge looked black,
and the surrounding sky
and trees and rocks
made one big blackness.
In daylight, next morning,
checking the view
from the covered bridge window,
she decides only other mourners
might guess about the light sand resting
on a flat boulder of basalt.
She thinks, That’s where I will be,
eventually, some way elemental
again. On the cut bank,
stalking aquatic insects,
a green heron ignores
but the flow
around its claws.
This painting gives birth to baby paintings,
not pretend or metaphoric births,
litters of miniatures which tumble
from the untidy backside of the canvas
where the artist stapled the edges of cloth to wood.
Trained on the gravid frame, cameras splutter
to uselessness, recording nothing of the repeating miracle.
After each phone call from the night guards,
the museum director purrs descants to opera
on her car radio during her inbound commute.
Ah! The institution’s income is secure!
At auction, by Sotheby’s, the miniatures will be gobbled up.
The subject of the painting, no surprise,
is the smiling nude self-portrait by none other
than Paula Modersohn-Becker, pregnant.
For decades art historians believed the opus
among those destroyed by Nazis.
In neglected museum storage,
a persistent cataloger, sorting through a clutch
of small unsigned pieces, had discovered,
hanging above them in the shadows,
the object of fecundity.
The complete simplicity, the simple completeness,
said it was Paula’s. Her name in the corner, surplus.
The young cataloger performed her job,
documented the crowd of little portraits of infants.
Only when Paula’s pregnant nude graced the gallery wall,
and the next births occurred, did the cataloguer attribute
the nursery of tiny pictures to the “Workshop of Paula Modersohn-Becker.”
Had all these ideas come to Paula before the fatal embolism,
which killed her days after her only daughter was born?
In her notoriety, the cataloger graduates to curator,
and the infant miniatures spread Paula’s legacy around the globe,
each child presenting her own humor,
her own hues, yet so like her mother.
Self Portrait, Nude
Inspired by the paintings of Paula Modersohn-Becker
The green backdrop,
is not a forest—
not a wall decorated
but only color, such that
she is never indoors
or out, but forever of paint, forever
smiling at you
and herself. Around her undressed neck
she wears a string
of yellow. The loop drapes
her chest. She smiles
at you, who,
when she painted, was herself.
Pamela Hobart Carter used to be a teacher who wrote on the side. Now she is a writer who teaches on the side. With Arleen Williams she wrote twelve short books in easy English for adults (for No Talking Dogs Press). Her plays have been read and produced in Seattle (where she lives), Montreal (where she grew up), and Fort Worth (where she has only visited). Many of her poems may be found at The Seattle Star.
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