Degas: Poet and Painter
“Degas began to write poetry, complaining to Stephane Mallarme that he could not understand his difficulties with sonnets, since he was not short of ideas. ‘But Degas,’ replied Mallarme, ‘you do not write poetry with ideas, you write it with words.’”
The Private Lives of the Impressionists, Sue Roe
When you painted the joint portrait of your sister
Therese and her husband, Edmondo Morbilli, were
you working with ideas or with paint, brushstrokes?
You painted them when they visited Paris in 1865:
they’d lost, just months before, their expected child.
Therese sits, one hand on her chin, the other on
Edmondo’s shoulder, partly in his shadow. He looks
out blankly at the viewer. Each of their four eyes is
differently painted. One of Therese’s is darkened by
her husband’s shadow, the other, more widely open,
stares at us. Edmondo’s right eye seems normal, if half
in shadow; but the left is wide, unfocused, its oddity
underscored by a thick comma, a red patch of skin.
He has pursed his lips, holding them tightly together.
Therese could be asking us, the viewers, will we get
through this, will our marriage survive it? While
what Edmondo says is “I can’t speak. I don’t know
how to name what’s afflicting me, what words could
speak for my mouth, my eyes, what I’ve seen, wept,
mourned.” There are no words here, no ideas;
brushstrokes carry her question, his silence.
Sandra Kohler is a poet and teacher. Her third collection of poems, Improbable Music, (Word Press) appeared in May, 2011. Earlier collections are The Country of Women (Calyx, 1995) and The Ceremonies of Longing, winner of the 2002 Associated Writing Programs Award Series in Poetry (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003). Her poems have appeared in journals, including The New Republic, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Prairie Schooner, and many others over the past 40 years.
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