Touching Matisse in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

From the secular street and the August heat,
I cross into the marble narthex,
thinking I’ve made not one worthy poem all summer.
In the skylit nave, I parse your portrait:
quizzical Os for glasses, strict beard,
for all the world the lawyer your father intended.
You look at me and I look at you and we both look
blank.

Bronze statues brave the aisle in alcoves; I wander
past them, ticking over your history:
you lived on your father’s paltry subsidy
although he hoped that you’d forsake
the impropriety of painting,
come home to Picardy, keep an eye
on his seed business.
He wanted a proper son;
mine wanted me installed
in a safe college job.

But you kept faith with your vocation,
married a woman from Toulouse
who scrubbed paint from your barely
commercial landscapes, so you
could use the surfaces again, distort
buttocks until they frightened you,
burst through the monstrance in your eye
to render what you saw in savage color.

In a side gallery, a sinuous odalisque
sits resplendent in her Persian dress;
not one word that I can write resembles this.
Thick breezes blow into a Window on the Promenade at Nice.
The Woman in Blue, in her voluminous gown, stares.
As I come near, suns hafts
glance against the picture’s glass.
Moving again, I notice a nude, unprotected
by hard surface sheen.
I scrutinize an inch left empty behind her hip,
savor mottled points of paint along her arm, until
your hand falls past my cheek, stroking ocher oil
onto the open canvas.
Your arm, thick with hair beneath its neatly rolled up sleeve,
moves across the inch of air between my face
and her fine nude flank.
Is this a benediction? 
Can I scrape away the residue of doubt
and prime my words anew?

 

Originally published in Still Point Arts Quarterly (Spring, 2013)