Saturday, December 10, 2005

Playful Poems about Life After Death

These poems are about the life and death of Elizabeth Siddal, the wife of Pre-Raphealite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Since the majority of the collection is rather dark, I decided to write some playful poems about her after-life — perhaps there are some interesting people or deities she may have met.

Earlier versions of some of these poems were published in The Windsor Review Volume 38.2 (2005). The lines breaks had to be changed for posting.

Elizabeth Siddal and Marilyn Monroe in Conversation

They sit and chat, stirring cream into coffee,
like long-time friends swapping recipes
over the kitchen table.

Since their deaths, they have spent
barely a minute apart. They each compliment
the other on their legendary beauty.
Lizzie, as Marilyn calls her, loves
to use an iron to curl Marilyn’s hair.
Wishes such things were invented
in her day. And Marilyn likes to show
Lizzie the proper way to apply mascara.

They giggle like schoolgirls
into the wee hours of the night.
Is that really you? Marilyn asks, pointing
at a reproduction of a Rossetti painting.
It doesn’t even look like you,
both bursting into a fit of laughter,
rolling about the bed in pajamas and fuzzy slippers.

What about this, Lizzie teases,
holding up a Marilyn doll.
I can’t imagine your hips being so small.

But their time together is not always frivolous.
They organize study groups
and book clubs, complete with egg salad
sandwiches and flavoured tea.

They relate to Hardy’s tragic
heroines, bite their lips when reading McCullers.
Tennessee Williams always sparks a debate
over the worst kind of lover.
But Goethe is their favorite.
The death scene of young Werther
always turns on the water-works,
each offering the other a tissue.

They share their stories of unhappy marriages,
lost children and drug addictions.
Lizzie preferred laudanum, Marilyn diazepam.
Revealing the details of their young deaths,
they promise each other never to tell
a soul their sworn secrets.

Make it official by cutting a small wound
into the tips of their forefingers,
gently touch hands together,
rub blood into blood.

Elizabeth and Dorothy in Mrs. Beeton’s Cooking Class

In today’s class, Mrs. Beeton, looking stiff
and Victorian in her high ruffled collar,
stirs her b├ęchamel sauce.

Dorothy wets her upper lip, dips a finger
into the simmering pot. Thinks of her life with William.
The pot roast she made on Sundays, seasoned
with fresh thyme and rosemary she picked
from the tiny garden behind the house.
While she pushed away from the table,
he asked for more.

She gathered metaphors, spun stories
of gypsies and beggars,
scanned the rolling hills and fields of daffodils.
She harvested images, fed him words served
along side tea and warm buttered toast.

In class Mrs. Beeton demonstrates to Elizabeth
how to peel an artichoke. Blanched and tender
to the touch, she slowly pulls the petals down
and away from the velvety center.

Elizabeth forces in her thumb, smiles sheepishly
at her clumsy hands. Mrs. Beeton laughs.
Her corset drawn tight, the pressure of expanding ribs
pushing back. She is no longer the woman she once was.
She appears matronly, layers of rigid crinoline
under a full skirt, yet things have changed.
She now talks of jouissance, of pleasure yielding
from the soft center of a truffle,
scooped with a persistent tongue.

She says: no longer do we lie on our backs,
close our eyes and think of England. Now we have choice.

Plums baked in sugar until bubbling, tart strawberries
dipped in thick chocolate. Savour the pleasure
of our creations. Taste warmed honey
slipped between parted lips.

Domestic Goddesses in the Kitchen

Elizabeth and Persephone are in the kitchen
looking over fall harvest recipes.
Persephone leans over the sink, sucks the seeds
from a pomegranate, feels them burst
between her teeth.

A muse is distant, a silent moon
lending guidance to wayward ships.
Luminous in the dark, watching all, yet never
demanding attention.

At least, that is what some men say,
not knowing, or because of knowing,
that a muse is a woman in slippers and housecoat,
who serves tea and scones in the morning.

His art inspired as much from the rounded
softness of breasts and hips, as from the woman
who sets aside her journal or paints
to stir the broth bubbling in its pot.

No longer wanting to be mythical, Elizabeth cuts apples
into quarters, sprinkles them with cinnamon and nutmeg.
Throws away the seeds. After all, an apple
is sometimes just an apple.

Elizabeth Paints a Second Self-Portrait

In heaven, paint is free.
God encourages everyone to take art class.
Creative expression not to be underestimated
in its ability to heal old wounds.
He has used this therapy himself,
to manage the anger he felt for what
he believed to be betrayal.

No longer on the path of destruction
—flooding lands, setting fire to cities,
the usual antics of a wrathful god—
he now teaches art.
Soothes the spirit with yellow ochre and burnt umber.
Like children, they paint with the palms of their hands,
smearing the palest of blue
into the whitest paper. This is the sky.

Elizabeth does not participate.
She has other things to work on.
She looks to the clouds, imagines the sun, paints
her face for the second time. There is no hint

of darkness, no deep shading to the side of her nose.
This time, she paints herself smiling.
Although no one will ever see it,
she believes in second chances.