Two Poems

Poetry / David Kirby

:: Delacroix’s Liberty on the Barricades ::

I wonder what Delacroix was thinking when he painted
		          a half-naked woman leading a group of revolutionaries
	     into battle, though what I really want to know is what
Delacroix wanted us to think. Did she get so excited
		          as she shouted and waved her flag that her top slipped down
	     and she didn’t notice? Or maybe she thought about

what guys like and lowered her blouse to her waist and said, “Now
		          that I have your attention. . . .”  After all, you could be
	     on the roof of a twenty-story building 
with a college sophomore and say, “Oh, look, there’s a naked lady
		          in the street,” and he’ll go, “Huh—where?”
	     and start stepping off into thin air. The kid on her left

has gotten the message; he looks to be about fourteen,
		          and the way he’s brandishing his pistols suggest that
	     he’s a greater danger to himself than to the enemy
as he thinks, not “Death to tyrants!” but “I finally
		          saw a woman’s boobs today—wait’ll I tell Jean
	     and Pierre!” But it’s the guy in the stovepipe hat 

who’s got my eye, because he reminds me of myself;
		          in the painting, he’s closer to the Liberty figure 
	     than anyone else, but he’s not rushing ahead like
the kid is, and he’s toting his musket the way
		          a man would carry a piece of crown molding 
	     if he were a homeowner in the middle of a big remodel 

rather than a soldier going to war. Maybe he’s afraid 
		          he’s going to get killed or get his ass shot off, 
	     which would be worse, in a way, because then 
he’d go through life without an ass, which would
		          be bad if his side won, even more terrible if it lost. 
	     But who’s thinking of that now? He’s charging into 

the fray as you would, one eye on the enemy 
		          and the other on the woman and all that stuff he has
	     to step over: ladders, paving stones, lampposts, 
two-legged stools, three-legged chairs, tables with 
		          one, two, and three legs, and everywhere, rats. 
	     Careful—watch out for that splintered piano! 

And those manure mounds, too; remember, this is 
		          the nineteenth century. Yes, if I were going to be 
	     anyone in that painting, I’d be that guy, making 
my hesitant way to my death or wounding or to nothing,
		          more likely than not; who’s to say the enemy’s going
	     to show up when and where he’s supposed to? I could

rush out to see what awaits me and find that nothing
		          does and end up with you in our squalid little flat high 
	     above the Paris streets where I start a blaze in the fireplace 
and the two of us sit by the window and look out on it all, 
		          and I get up or you do and whoever does brings the other 
	     a glass of port and a plate with some biscuits, as happy 

as the kings and queens of France—happier, really, since 
		          no one is going to lead a revolution against us except
	     that old double agent Time, who even now is lurking 
in the street below, dressed as a beggar in rags. 
		          I see you, Time! And I know that you’re thinking: 
	     that you’ll slow my step, thicken my blood, chip away 

at the cartilage that keeps one bone from grinding against 
		          its fellow, gradually amortize my skin, and, soon or later, 
	     whisk the carpet out from under me altogether. Yet how 
can I be angry at you? Look at all you’ve given me!
		          Hours and hours of sex, and thousands of great meals
	     as well—not that the food is better than the sex, 

but a good meal takes a lot longer, plus you get an itemized bill
		          at the end that allows you to say, “Oysters, yes, risotto,
	     fine,” and so on, whereas sex is a few kisses and then 
whoosh! You’re here and there and everywhere, 
		          as the Beatles say, and sort of happy and disbelieving 
	     when you pop out on the other side. Same thing with war:

one minute, you’re grousing about the food in the mess hall,
		          and the next, you’re slinging lead like nobody’s business.
	     No wonder Sigmund Freud and your other high-bracket 
Middle European brain doctors equated the two. 
		          And no wonder the man in the stovepipe hat hesitates.
	     One moment he’s thinking that his time on earth

is too brief for him to sit around stirring his coffee 
		          when he should be rushing into whatever awaits him,
	     and the next, he’s looking down and thinking, 
“Damn—this is a gun in my hands. Should I charge into
		          battle or not?” You’ve come this far—to the barricades,
	     my friend! Then home for a cup of tea and a cuddle.


:: The Wedding Photo ::

            Reader, this is not one one of those ekphrastic poems
of the kind where you have to know what the painting 
	     looks like to understand the poem and is instead
an extended but, I hope, not too tedious reflection
		          on that photo I found while cleaning 
out the attic after the death of my parents, and there are three

	     people in the photo, and the one you notice first 
is the groom, who is snarling at a woman who 
	     is surely his mother-in-law, and it looks as though
he has shoved his shirt too far into his pants,
		          which is one of the worst things 
that can happen to a man in a crowd of people, because how 

	     can you fix it unless you unbutton yourself 
and pull everything out and start over, 
	     but you can’t do that in a church with your whole 
family and the bride’s family and fifty or sixty 
		          total strangers staring at you 
and saying, “Look, Maggie, Rick’s unbuttoning his trousers!” 

	     and “If you ever do that, Hollis, I’ll never speak 
to you again,” and the bride is watching all this, 
	     and the expression on her face suggests that 
her mother has just said something along 
		          the lines of “See? See what 
he’s doing? I told you not to marry him. You idiot! He’s ruining 

	     your life the way your father ruined mine!” 
Who are these people? Not my parents,
	     whose marriage remains a mystery to everyone
except them, to me, even, though I witnessed
		          all of it except for the few years before 
my birth, though I’m pretty sure I would have remembered it

	     if my father had said, “Have you prayed tonight?”
like Othello and then “I kissed thee ere I killed thee. 
	     No way but this, / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss” 
and guess it more likely that, if my dad seemed wistful
		          from time to time, it was because he, 
like Dr. Lydgate in Middlemarch, had marked how far he had

	     traveled from “his old dreamland” when his wife
“appeared to be that perfect piece of womanhood 
	     who would reverence her husband’s mind after 
the fashion of an accomplished mermaid, 
		          using her comb and looking-glass 
and singing her song for the relaxation of his adored wisdom alone.”

	     Yet my own wife and I wake more often than not
in each other’s arms, the first one to master his or her
	     powers of speech saying how happy he or she is
to wake next to someone they love so much and then
		          the other saying yes, yes, he or she 
agrees. Then we make coffee and get the papers from the driveway

	     and get back in bed and read and drink the coffee
and argue about art or politics or who has to shop
	     for dinner, but in the manner of people who love
each other and have been doing so for a long time
		          and hope to continue doing so for 
a good while to come, though you don’t have to have a PhD 

	     in Third Grade Arithmetic to realize that, barring 
astonishing developments in medical science, 
	     the years before us are fewer in number than 
the ones behind. Much fewer, come to think of it, 
		          but who’s counting? By now the couple 
in the photo have been through the same petty squabbles we have—

	     that or murdered each other, although, statistically
speaking, that’s an unlikely outcome. Chances 
	     are they’ve made their way past the Scylla 
of Whose Family to Visit During the Holidays 
		          and the Charybdis of What 
Kind of Sex to Have and How Often and are in a state of settled 

	     contentment, like other couples, though from time
to time one will say to the other, “You made it 
	     too hot in here” or “are you leaving your plate 
in the sink for me to wash?” and the other will say,
		          “Well, what about that wet towel 
on the floor?” and in that way remember the day it all began. 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

The one rule in poetry is the same rule that dominates the rest of our lives: pleasure first. Sure, we want our food to nourish us, but it’s more important for it to taste good. And we want our sweethearts to make our time on earth easier, but really, didn’t we make them our sweethearts in the first place because we love to look at them and caress them and nuzzle their necks?   

So pleasure first, and after that? Once I heard the editor and essayist Ted Solotaroff say that a piece of writing is often a writer’s “only way to organize and to some extent comprehend life’s fullness and perplexity.” Surely that’s equally true for readers. And not just readers, either: surely anyone who takes the time to look at a painting or listen to music or watch a TV show is organizing their experience and, to use Solotaroff’s modest phrase, “to some extent” comprehending it. In the end, then, a poem for me is a little problem-solving machine.

But it has to give pleasure first.

 

David Kirby teaches English at Florida State University. The Times of London has called his Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Continuum, 2009) “a hymn to the emancipatory power of nonsense.” His latest poetry collection is The Biscuit Joint (LSU Press, 2013), and there’s more information on www.davidkirby.com.