In my first book of poems, Without Paradise, there is a suite, “Six Paintings by Matisse” dedicated to the Portuguese poet Alberto de Lacerda, a friend who passed away last year in London. An experiment in ekphrasis, the poems are not so much about the paintings as they are about what the paintings called forth from me at the time; each invited my participation in a different way.

I’ve been able to find each of the images somewhere or another on the web, so I gather the images and poems together here for the first time — I hope you enjoy them.

La Desserte Rouge, 1908

Who is this figure, busy, always, with
preparations, amid blood-red illusions,
guardian of the bold or boring heart?
Lub-dub. Big deal. Sit down. The tongue!
Now there’s an organ fleshly, necessary
and orchestral as an artist’s eye. Look,
there, through the window in the thick wall:
the wobbling world like a liquid’s surface.
Now look at her: her look, meant to hide her,
gives her away — Mnemosyne, wise mother,
arranging the season’s fruits and flowers.

La Fenetre, 1916

Even as we have arranged it,
the world goes on without us,
lives, breathes, moves, and changes,

not only because it is green (a word
that, much like “light,” means more
than is ever intended) but because

what summons each new topography
from time’s fatigue, cruel as it is,
(no, not to show us, but we notice)

leaves beauty in its wake, light
through a green that froths and vanishes
over and over and over.

La Danse II, 1909-1910

So much illusion in even a single moment:
from childhood’s bedtime tigers in the curtains
to dead friends’ faces in the crowded street.
I wonder if we ever know what’s real.

What shall we do? Survivors, more and more
of what we call the world the world calls
memory. Each morning brings a simple story
that becomes incomprehensible by evening.

Is the danger real? Is death? Who wants to know?
Who wants to know if things are as they seem?
If the unmistakable angel came and offered you
lucidity, eternally, what would you do?

We dance! We choose, who know the cost of fact,
the grip of others’ hands and the abandon
only possible when we are held like this,
our links explicit, simple choreography

from childhood all we want or need although
we each, alone, know otherwise. It’s hard
to tell from here, from this one moment, if
the changing sky is growing bright or dimming,

so we dance to forget then turn and wheel
the other way toward remembering until
we know, together, it is time to turn again,
and someone stumbles, falls, becomes a story.

La Famille Du Peintre, 1913

No still life: he must live
with this arrangement of
the family furniture, and paint it.
The dead chose the fabric.

Did le Pere our painter pose them?
We stare through the proscenium.
Daughter, stage left, moves to foot:
feigning displeasure, “Papa, stop it!”
Madame, up right, with kerchief,
mutters, wishing to vanish, angered
by this trespass that, because she wed
Matisse, will go on forever,

while Masters Cain and Able,
in their prepubescence, slow
as red fish in a glass bowl,
contend, center, throughout.

The dead are in the pit, below
the angle of our vision, tuning.
Half our lives we wait and then
they’re awful anyway, off-key,

each in a different time.
But never mind. Before us the living
make believe and we believe in them.
Vague sounds of war and weeping, off.

La Conversation, 1909-1911

This is “intercourse” the way the word is
used in older texts we giggled at in school.
He is phallos, a fluted column, a pillar,
composed in blue and white pajamas, serious,

while, folded and dark, she holds herself
a little stiffly, as if she’s been interrupted
in her enjoyment of the morning’s solitude,
but listening nonetheless. If it isn’t obvious

from the sheer intensity of their locked gaze
in the electric blue interior, the iron restraint
on the sill of the warming world spells NOX,
and in its center familiar sleeping lovers lie,

turned from each other, curled, while outside,
day is already begun. They are discussing what to do,
where to go, how to get there, needs and wants,
love’s fierce and difficult engagement.

L’Atelier Rouge, 1911

Only a dead man,
only a dead man here,

an absence limned
by what can be said

to exist, a familiar
array of records and effects,

life death the way all
shadows are the sun: a

Matisse.

Of course, it occurs to me that the poems may suffer from this proximity to their inspirations, but so be it.

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