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Sitting for Giacometti


1

It's the dawn of the 21st century and my stomach churns

the green olives I eat while I wait for my daughter

to come home from school. I drift off and dream

I'm in Paris...my stomach churns green olives

while I wait for Giacometti. Diego, the artist's brother,

frets over a broken urn, over the grim belly

where the fires start, over the brain that says

when it's fed the heart is where the hunger is.

I have a cowlick matting down one side of my head,

while Giacometti's off for cold prosciutto, eggs,

a glass of Beaujolais, two thick Turkish coffees

before we get started. It's like sitting for Freud,

with all the things I had to ask him, stuff about

the skinny Sphinx, his palm-leaf herm, his weak,

wandering ear, the lean Asian lady of jade just

up over the couch, and why his thoughts were black.

 

2 

This is part of the history of my unconscious, 

the Hot Club de Paris, Django Reinhardt on guitar,

all of Tripoli out to see the white-skinned god of armatures.

We are out of all time--it's 1957 or 1999, the two of us

joined by our love of silent inquisition. I am here

to listen well, to feel steam heat as it implodes

upon a town of communards and sans-culottes.

The radiator hisses. The caterwaul outside subsides. 

Giacometti comes in swaying to one side, eager to start

our work. Getting the nose right, making out of corners

a cut—impossible, possible not to see clear

to what an artist feels when he, he says, peels away

the skin, pin-needling whatever critics make

of the modern as it tries to bury what's new. 

The morning Bordeaux road rage, a speck in the eye

of a Greek girl on Rue Morgue, then Giacometti

clears his throat and prattles on about mercury

in tainted sturgeon. I have my hands between my legs,

my back is straight but brittle, the years of tending

toddlers curve into an arc of emptiness, infinite altruism.

Rock doves—piss-pigeons—commingle outside

Giacometti's window, which lets only red light

in at four, five, when we quit and find friends

at the bar La Coupole in the freezing sleet.

 

3

Clouds, choke cherry, crowns of barbs

across the plains of Nazceth, where one thing

leads to another: the artist spooling

food into his baby brain.  Giacometti coughs.

He's barely touched the canvas, he's beside

himself at the milk stool I'm tipped up on. 

It's France, it's already tomorrow, a day

when hooded grebes, allspice and foul weather

to help the snow to crystallize.

 

4

Light on my throat is pure Eros, a passion play.

Right here, he nabs a thought with a bit of ash, clay,

swallowing up whatever stipples of vermilion surface,

pure presence of mind that might have been

a door to the houseboat homeless on the Seine.

The area of a plane directly abrogates pi's space,

rotors whirring deep inside the black Sargasso

of his face. My pacing in the studio

mimics Archimedes' walk across the chop and wake

of the Adriatic. I try to say this to Giacometti,

but he isn't listening. He's undoing the picture

and talking about a mushroom lunch. He's covered

with dry pig bristle, plaster, and flecks of red.

 

5

Watcher, see what it's liked to be watched.

He cradles my arms, he strokes the charnel wood

as if it was a channel to the places where no one's been. 

I mean, inside. Let loose.  Loosen up! he cries in a fit. 

The fit does undermine the feeling.  Restless, he walks

the distance between us, crushing what's unfinished.

This is where a culture is born, and borne up

out of the shallows of Guadalquiver, of Oaxaca,

of Andros Island boys who sweat for tourists

and lead girls to the furthest reaches of the beach.

There's no clock in here, it's too hot, a Madrid sun,

if even our minds race across Basque mountain-tops

to Irun, Lyons, and later the Grand Canaries,

where a minnow run keeps lobstermen from pots,

so an artist can hear the sea in all its purity

rage on towards another Atlantic coast of death.

Focus.  Clear your head.  Shake frost from the edges

of sweet consciousness.  A frilly bird appears,

a quetzal or trogon on an errand to Malraux,

Moliere... Clear the air.  Clear the air, it's Moliere. 

He's come to take his henchman from the strain

of my unchanneled course of thought.  But Giacometti

interferes, slashing away at the beigework of the face,

saying it's impossible to even try.  He walks out.  A cry.

 

6

The man loved Beckett.  He was so inured that he sculpted

ladders, vast breakwaters, mooning suns where he could,

to get to the angst, or the ardor of moments lost

in an eternity, the sound of an A which molds

an afterworld from tattered clothes or limp baguettes. 

I tell him this, but he shudders off all talk and cheers

at a rising siren. It was always like this with Giacometti.

In every poem of mine, I say, the sundry meets

the elegant in glass, hemp, beadwork out of

deepest Mozambique. I mean things of light,

lazy, heraldic, cornucopia ablaze, prehensile toes

at the tip of every intercourse. At the Aswan Dam,

the half-sunk library at Pisa, the Straits of Molucca:

ships, beleaguered or lost, burying myrrh beneath

sands of the Kalahari, or up in Atlas cedars,

or upon the oil sludge flats of Extremadura.

But the artist hears nothing that I say.

 

7

In the chill of the room we count down to the epochal,

we sing to Stradivarius, the stray quartets four

horsemen trammeled on for fifteen days in May.

Now we're not fasting—we're eating guacamole

with red corn chips.  In this Umbrian dusk, some shades

visit, from down in Circe's tomb where Achilles wept.

Colin Turnbull—who wrote about the listless Ik,

Hans Magnus Enzenberger and his Mephistopheles,

Gunter Grass, Pelle who introduced me to Alfons

who sent me to St. Barbara.  Barbara's not here,

it's too cold, there are only men, men who resent

the lot they've been issued, men who've lived

on the Golan Heights or in East Africa, men

who cry for absinthe with their beer and curse

their fathers for fair hair and a will to power. 

We're waiting for a sign from cave painters

who tell Giacometti he's nothing without them.

He scoffs at this and continues to labor at my

eyebrows, the dome above the sockets of the eyes.

Apprised of our lot, it being apocalypse-time,

four hundred Hebrew angels led by Malachy arrive

for New Year's Eve, we make our shopping lists

of loves, on mine of course is Goya and El Greco,

and Blake, the Reverend Howard Finster

and the God's Army twins. Each monster writes,

submits it to the boss, Diego, who makes a Xerox,

then burns the lot with green tea in a wood stove.

 

8

After seven sittings, my head has all but disappeared.

Numinous clouds of bluish meal—oats, quinoa,

couscous—spread out above the dais.

Where a visage lay, there's only coal smutch. 

We work further into the dark, till Giacometti says

it's hard for me to stop the talk,

it's delirium that comes when

you accomplish nothing.  So we go back

to landfill, glaze, titanium, shiny

with turpentine, my head still

empty of any thoughts but the sheen

of what I'll look like when I'm dead,

when in this room the body will cease

to invest itself of arrogance or beauty.

Some of the others intercede here,

one old, lumbering maid—maybe it's

Charlotte Bronte—with her teeny

weenie script as if mice were at it

in the library again.  I mention this,

but the painter is asleep, delirious,

waking in a distant place where poppies

snap, and all the world is dancing

with an earl-king.  I tiptoe out, the sun's

still up, so I head for the Bauberg to look

at Les Levine, or Warhol's last electric chair,

the only painters (besides Van Gogh)

that speak in Dutch to the restless and the raw.

 

9

I am the model of impatience.

Trout lilies droop without the sun.

A glass of Perotti to catch glints of quietude

on my shaded face, to contain

the row inside, a pond of black,

broken ice at the littoral edge

of a sea.  See, Giacometti

hasn't moved in half an hour.  Dour,

full of Madeira, he imagines

the Roman cleft and pasty lips,

the crucifix which forms the pocked

valley between my eyes, cheeks,

chin and dim, inspirited soul

that registers in every dimple-tic.

He has to look away to remember,

he has to see Jean Genet in me,

or Max Ernst with a jutting jaw,

he puts a mackerel field of tiny

scrawls across the gap where Gertrude

Stein would have said one word.

 

10

I wake up along the coast of New Bedford.

Black jets choke the free air overhead:

in six months' time I'll be in East Berlin,

or at the World's Fair in Hannover—

a quick scull row over to Helgoland

to register time's catapult across

the International Date Line, a century,

a third millennium, but in Giacometti's studio,

a netherworld of lead white pigment

to accentuate my underchin, the one

particular wrinkle that, at forty-four,

unwinds across my white Nile neck,

my brow which is scarred by preacher's drink,

orbiting both Palomar and Isle de Cayenne. 

Mozart skirts from shadows where

Charlie Parker's riffed a pulsing star. 

The painter sees what's everyday, the meteor

of change, the charred sea cucumber.

He makes foreshortened strokes with a

horsehair brush that's sopped in sepia.

 

11

Jacques Tati.  Vivre Sa Vie.  Gaulois cigarettes-- 

that's it.  I ask the sculptor what he's learned

from baring women's breasts across the landscape.

La Giaconda, the Tempest, the Three Trees,

from men like me or Tristan Tzara that he steeps

with fears of elevated tram stop railways,

the dreams that spiral into uninvited holocausts

of kittens, plate glass windows shrapnelling out

away from Algerian authors, the take-down

of fellow travelers to Mars, the stupor of visitors

to Disneyworld when their hotel rooms bloom

into brimstone.  Giacometti senses torpor, ennui,

immanence, a lack of gratitude in how I stare—

what do I care?  I try to lose myself in thoughts

of what I'll do when he's done with my sitting.

Ask Fragonard, ask Blavatsky, ask Madeleine

Albright, Secretary of State to war in Chechnya.

And what do the dead reply on the subject

of a torso caught in late light?  He says, angels,

Byzantine, mosaiced, above a city on a hill,

Rome or Alexandria, without a sound they hum,

chanting the fluted architecture of St. Mark's,

in the silence of an Occidental midnight sky,

we sit awhile and smoke and drink and die,

looking for God in a tumored bird of paradise.

 

12

One should be a branch of an alder,

staring at an avenue of trees.

One should be a stump, a frogspawn

pond, a brick of Irish peat.

One should be so inactive

that a state of rest becomes

the revolutionary force to turn the world

upon its side and shake the center into apogee,

the way the Moon pulls a water bulge away from Earth.

One should listen for midnight, three a.m.—nine,

these are times to mix incendiary colors,

leave the turpentine to dry upon

the handkerchief of Desdemona.

One should lie with one's true love,

to while away the morning when

trucks backfire and commerce bottoms out..

In the studio, there is a Tiffany vase

for roses, a thousand elephant inkblots

dropping to the floor, a missal

of ghazals on 13th century law.

Only Cezanne could draw,

Giacometti says, in another life

there will be time for the desert. 

For now, I must obliterate it all,

I must demolish you with joy:

the bust, by now, is entirely askew.

 

13

The next morning, he exuded gloom. 

We start conversing backwards,

Bartok's string quartets unbosoming

in white.  Hell is right here, he says

of the pacing, turning, gesturing

and light.  Poking, swollen, he jabs

and swills at the charterhouse.

Things look black, my poor friend. 

What's hardest is what's familiar: 

a neck, a noose, a family gathering,

the Christmas goose, the hill to Calvary,

bright gossamer, dross, Kilkenny's poor,

a life of lies and lullabies, a certain

coffee smell at the BMT, blindness

come all too soon, a firehouse horn

at noon, a sunken, penumbral moon,

the song he sung from four to five,

we kept it up with Jemez sherry,

talk of cloning, Ritalin, movie-makers,

what's a DVD?  I had to fill him in—

he'd missed so much of a material world

that wrought revolution, many hungry

still clamoring for bread, medicine,

for intranets and strawberry ice cream.

On the front page of France-Soir:

another plane is hijacked to Havana.

 

14

I wake up to screeching gulls. It's millennium eve,

and my daughter races up the steps

with her braces full of black licorice.

On TV tonight, Larry King Live has Billy Graham,

Sir Arthur Clarke, the Dalai Lama, all off

in camera land—Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Miami—

while the world sings "Auld Lang Syne"

into the next century, in Vatican City

the pope shelves out a missive in Polish

that begins and ends in abortion,

Africa, and endometriosis.  Rabbis

can't compete with the global likes

of Jesse Ventura.  In Mecca, the Ka'Ba

is alone, in Southern Egypt Coptic

and Arabic shopkeepers barter

the price of hearts of palm. Calm, collected,

I seethe like a prehistoric insect

caught in amber, a bog of not knowing

why I can sit so still while the earth implodes

about me, rollicking through waves

of porpoises and whales.  Look to line length,

meter, diesel fuel for Chrysler trucks,

what a portrait was before Mohammed

forbade such things.  It's the mosques

of Kabul that will open the doors to

a kingdom of light. Trust me, Giacometti says,

forget Picasso. A full moon, a swimming pool,

and sandhill cranes over Oklahoma City

will guide us to the next and bloody Bethlehem.

15

In Auckland, a land that Giacometti's never seen,

dancers spring up from sand as the sun throws first light

on a new day—primeval gods of the rodent world,

they sputter and writhe until two homo sapiens

deliver a coconut to the foot of the sea.  At best,

the seven minutes' choreography is all

the stadium of Earth needs to reinvent itself.

Fata Morgana shrieks across the level sands

of the Mohave, where my brother packs

his things to go, leaving his son to steep

in the sorrow his mother's made of a marriage

not tested by time.  He walks out to a truck stop,

where a passing pickup is heading for Nogales.

He'll try to find me wherever I am, as the time

he did when he left Fort Dix—jumping off

a freighter bound for Norway—when he found me

writing in a graveyard stoked on LSD.

Our last embrace brings him out and back

to the family he so desired.  This I try

to explain to Giacometti, but he's so

shy it takes an hour to get past a thin wash

of gesso across the mouth I've overused.

Feeling abused, I tell him that it's over now.

 

16

I'm looking forward and I'm looking back.

The power to see, the act of catching is

completely unawares, is a guiding principle

of his art. Ridiculous, sublime?  Posing is proactive.

Every day, the theater of my life is emptied out

when I can walk to the dunes to Cormorant Rock

and cry for happiness. I'm doing this for him,

for Giacometti, because I want to learn how

to undo negatives, the controlled spaces of weapons

of war, of hypertext and automatic writing,

revision, revolutionary will in an age of Visa Gold.

I'm right back where I was in 1959, drooling

and watching, soaking in every motion

of my sister, who at two, completely dominates

my every move.  The dance remains the same,

same old photographs of self, where you have

to hold out the camera at arm's length, as Giotto

would with every fingering of chapel light.  It's October

now and the streets are full of witches, even here

two hundred miles from Sherwood Forest. 

One ghoul flips a rock at Giacometti's window.

We chase him up the Rue de Guerre, but he

disappears into smoke and mirrors.  Returning,

we hope to take my smirk, so overwrought, and turn

it into glow.  This is the moment when

everything could start, he says, so I lie low,

waiting for crescendos, waiting for the moan of O.

 

17

I don't know what to write any more. I hold open doors

for ladies, but cattle dogs stampede through, to lobbies

of glittering slab at Chase Manhattan and Dresdner Bank. 

At the piano, Ray Charles rags out Trump's worst fear,

libretti written for terrorists.  I mention this daydream

to Giacometti, who fists the cadmium and breaks

focaccia on my head.  It's too late, all's lost, he murmurs

gingerly, as if the very tenor of his voice could

vulcanize Pompeii.  Too much Orvieto wine

and antipasto.  Penne arriabata. Artichoke and egg. 

The portrait's doomed, we circle one more

lip spot that could be an entranceway to Tartarus.

Yes!  The sleet outside has promised more

than everyday roars of the sea.  One glimmer

is all we need, the artist barks, one iota, one seed

of Pandora, one tinder box of gloom.  The room is suddenly

filled with paparazzi, aiming flashbulbs at his head.

Mine has disappeared, but suddenly I can see

from another spot—the upper reaches of a canvas.

He's done it!  He's transmogrified my ear.

I can see from inside his image of who I am.

I'll go now; he's proud he's got this much to show.

Lumbering and hungry, I pick up my tools—books

on imaginary islands—and head for the cellar door.

Diego hands me my hat and says I must return

tomorrow, at four, for the signature, finishing touch.

 

18

Don't look back.  For seven weeks on eighteen afternoons

I've sat with a smile, sure that my image

might befit an archetype of a man.  What woman

ever looked twice at me, brainstem twisted into corn cob,

and now that there's one stand-in effigy for the

electric pulse of dreaming from my deepest fears,

who cares?  Giacometti's already sold the thing

to a pair from Lake Jupiter who spends their afternoons

at a polo club, at an all-white beach.  Remember

that South Africa is free.  Remember that the shadow

of a prophet has carried a culture through three world

wars to the foot of an isthmus of relative peace. 

Remember the multitudes on New Year's Day, reaching

dunes in bikinis, shouting at the gruff old polar bears

who cluster there, together running to the surf.

The cry of glee and outrage, a loose community:

this is what my lasting glare must be, beaming out

at all who think that faith comes easy to the rich.

The poor are my voyeurs, because their poverty

is mine, I am the poor, gathering in grief that comes

of having, knowing, loving—touching, taking

what's not yours in the name of a ghost.  Host

of a thousand sailors, the painter sits still now,

last brushstroke timed to align with this, the last

sentence, and my undoing, the lull of calm

before the storm of another picture's onslaught,

which captures my imagination when I'm lost.