Sitting for Giacometti
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.
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.
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
are helping the snow to crystallize.
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 a houseboat homeless on the Seine.
The area of a plane directly abrogates pi' 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.
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.
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, prehensiled 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 our 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.