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.