“…but I have the sunflower, in a way.” –Van Gogh
Oh Vincent, a week before the sun will be blotted
from the sky by the moon, your Sunflowers
will gather together for the first time since
you took brush to palette to canvas
over one hundred years ago.
One of these was the same painting at which my grandmother
tried her hand at as she learned to struggle with oils when I was a child.
I read that you painted these to decorate Gauguin’s bedroom for his visit,
a guest in your home, and I remember sleeping in the guestroom
of my grandmother’s condominium on a blow-up mattress--
red and green plaid, against a navy backdrop. I’m not sure why
I need to talk color to you, perhaps because of the importance
of it to you in painting the richness of those flowers--
and how you waited for months for the pigments to be shipped
so you could paint the same flower again and again. In humid Florida
I would wake, the sun rising into a sky-blue sky, the aroma of pine and palm
slipping through the slatted windows needing to be cranked open, my hand
resting on the cool marble of the sill, and I would turn to see your painting,
browns and golds, copper and rose rising from the heads of the flowers,
their perfect eyes of green, the fringes of them folding backward into the backdrop
of tan stucco walls, having been recaptured by my grandmother’s crepe-skinned hand,
and hanging above the floral sofa. Still in nightclothes, we would breakfast on oranges
big as the moon, carefully sectioned with a funny little knife.
How she tried to paint most mornings, her palette covered with colors
knifed together, her tongue almost black with pigment as she gathered
the bristles of the brush together in her mouth so that it pointed as you
must have. She once captured for me a small scene of a palm, the thin trunk
nothing more than a generic line with other lines hatching through the vertical,
fronds, thin green triangular strokes—a beach scene, since she lived in Clearwater,
where the sand was as light as powder and squeaked beneath our flipflops
when we walked. My cousins and I would walk to the beach every day
at dusk to catch the sunset; the sun, a fiery orange dipping its toes
into the ocean nightly, until it fell beneath the horizon
separating water from sky.
I still remember the elevator in her building as our tiny kid fingers
would press button after button, until they glowed round, and how
she would laugh as we stopped on every floor, the smell of machine oil
and Coppertone filling it. My grandparents went there to retire, selling
their house in New York City to move to a world free of traffic, free of people
rushing from home to work, from work to home, and back again. How free
they must have felt in their new location. How free you must have felt after Arles.
We seldom spoke about my other grandmother. Like you, she was bi-polar,
and never took her medication on time and when she did, she chased
her Valium with Lithium, drank Screwdrivers and smoked Belairs
until blue smoke filled the kitchen where she burned pie after pie
made from the fruit of her rotting orchard. She would have understood
your desire for perfection in those sunflowers--
the dried crumpled leaves folding over themselves again
and again as you painted them over in various shades
of brown and tan, rose and gold, slipping from their vase.
Once a rat swam beside me in her unkempt swimming pool, his face
pink and puckered with white whiskers twitching among the early fallen
autumn leaves; she caught it in a net and beat it to death in front of me.
To prevent more from coming out, she blocked the hole
in the cracked blue concrete wall with a round batting of steel wool.
She never moved, staying in the same place for years, marrying again,
and again, trading husband for husband as they left her until she eventually
went on the cruise of which she’d always dreamed, the cruise for which
she bought over one hundred sets of clothing, the cruise where at sea finally,
she drowned in the fluid of her own lungs.
Later in Paris, you painted the flowers taking on the texture of fur. Heads
vaseless, dead, and so far removed from their stems—I never question why.
Tara A. Elliott
Tara A. Elliott lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with her husband and son. She is the founder of Salisbury Poetry Week, and has poems in The HyperTexts, The Loch Raven Review and in theTAOS Journal of Poetry, The Write Like You’re Alive Anthology, and forthcoming in The End of 83.
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