Chaim Soutine, 1925
I have sent the girl to the butcher’s again.
She is not fit
for anything more than this little sketch, too plain
not to forget with the rest: a white,
receding figure with streaks of weak umber and sienna
who fetches blood in a shallow, earthenware basin.
Perhaps if she saw her face reflected there,
ochre broken over vermillion,
she would become interesting.
Perhaps the smell on the stairs might make her stagger, a little.
And this would be the beginning of desire: my unpainted
self-portrait as a boy in a winter village
who shivers against the slaughterhouse wall
and prays for the warmth of a carcass hung over damp straw.
Once I learned that of the thousand ways to gut a fowl,
only that one is sacred
which allows the soul to vanish without flutterings or cries.
I, who no longer believe the dead find peace,
except for a moment,
when they take leave of fear with a little wave, a shrug,
as I might see a friend off on a short and routine journey . . .
So I have come to love the body on the edge of ascension:
a peasant woman, say, posed beneath a bridge, with her pale shift
hiked almost to her thighs, who stops screaming
and watches the lightning flare, the river grip her legs.
There is a little truth
where she hangs between fire and water, a stillness
which lasts only so long as the soul cannot choose its element.
(I left out the bridge, rocks in a gray light, those gnarled limbs,
to show, in her face,
the heart of nature: two notes, clear
and close and dissonant
which will never resolve themselves.)
To have faith in this is to live much of the time in poverty.
What money there is goes
for a side of beef delivered fresh each morning.
By noon it will have lost those pigments
which are not the semblance of life, but the whole of it.
Then Paulette will return with her basin full
and bathe the carcass
in whatever blood the butcher did not need for sausage.
In this she is the greater artist.
She gags, her features twist, her hands and dress are spattered,
but she has that skill I envy in boxers in the ring
when their fists draw color to a bruise.
I, who can only copy, as Homer did, the vigil
we keep to summon the dead,
those great imaginings…They tell us only what we know:
that hell is a dry, unpleasant place
where heroes and heroes’ mothers go thirsty.
But when their lips first lap
our sacrifice, when their faces take on shape and flush,
somewhere, I think, there must be a boy who walks from great cold
into a room where lamplight plays
across slaughtered cattle. Their hides transfigured
in the afterimage
of leather and a guttering lantern: on a blue ground,
ochre and vermillion.
Jordan Smith is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Clare’s Empire, a fantasia on the life and work of John Clare, available digitally from The Hydroelectric Press. He lives in upstate New York and teaches at Union College. (updated 10/2016)