The first time I saw her, I recognized her—recognized her the way I discern my own features in the face of my grandmother. And what is it, exactly, that I recognized? Initially, immediately, it is the roundness of her hips, the softness of her body. Round. Soft. These are the kinds of words I use—on my best days—to describe the abundance of my own body.
after Klimt’s Two Studies of a Seated Nude with Long Hair
She listens to the bluesilver wind
as he rails against the iron smolder
of arthritis in his joints. He wouldn’t
believe it, but she fantasizes about
singed fingertips, cracked thumbnails,
bruise-jaded knuckles—all these
Viennese painter Gustav Klimt completed the sketch Two Studies of a Seated Nude with Long Hair between 1901 and 1902. The sketch, done in black chalk and red pencil, served as preparation and scaffolding for his painting, Goldfish. Klimt’s signature contains the only straight lines in the piece. The figure herself is edgeless, soft as night.
Most days, my body is more metaphor than muscle, more broken promise than bone. I heard everything you said—and everything you didn’t say. And I believed you. I believed that if I policed my body well enough, if I tamed and cultivated my body, I would be granted some protection. Some grace. And I, knowing discipline like I know breath, held up my end of the bargain. You didn’t. No protection, no grace. I have never been and never will be unassailable. My enemy keeps me close. Closer than I would like.
Nothing is known about Klimt’s model. We can guess only that she was of limited means and posed for Klimt for a fee. For $39.68, I could own her likeness. Hang her on my wall. Critics often compare her—the graceful fluidity of her limbs—to water. I keep reminding myself that she is not a landscape.
There is a kind of dark satisfaction in listening to a medical professional explain that you are, in fact, as fucked up as you think you are. Bulimia, I’ve realized, is one of those words that sounds like it feels, whose curves and proportions mimic its implications. Mental health professionals now recommend that we talk about eating disorders in terms of affliction rather than condition. It is the difference between, “You have bulimia nervosa,” and, “You are bulimic.” I recognize and appreciate the logic. And yet, on my worst days, I feel bulimic. I experience it as condition, as nature, as mode of being. I tell my partner, “It’s a hard food day.” What I mean is, “I only look like the person you love. Today, I’m something else entirely.”
A bird’s nest unspools in the back
of her throat. She has never once
asked him for a glass of water. For one
thing, it is sacred: silence—this pretty,
doomed impermanence. For another,
she is waiting to see what will hatch.
Klimt is said to have fathered fourteen children, of which six were officially documented. Those six children were born to three different mothers, all of whom originally modeled for Klimt. All this to say, it’s possible that this particular model may have, at one point, slept with the artist that sketched her. And none of this is significant, except to say that she had a lithe, live body, about which she made choices.
I could blame magazines, models, my mother’s bathroom scale. But it feels more mythic than that. I come from a long and storied line of women undone by food. Did Eve sin the moment she bit down, the moment she swallowed, or the moment her digestive enzymes finished their work? Is hers a sin of ingestion or absorption? If Persephone hadn’t swallowed the pomegranate seeds, had rolled them across her tongue and then spit them out, would she have been allowed to leave the underworld for good?
It is, in some ways, deeply arrogant to fantasize a connection with this woman. I know nothing about the day-to-day realities of her life. What did she think of while she posed? How often, afterwards, did her mind turn back to the studio, to the artist? Did she remember his face any better than he remembered hers? How arrogant, too, this desire to read her mind. She doesn’t owe me that. We owe each other, at the end of the day, so very much and so very little. I am tempted to make up a name for her. But she doesn’t owe me that either—the comfort of a name.
At this point in my recovery, I know shame better than anything. The shame in eating. The shame in not eating. The shame in un-eating. The shame in rebellion and the shame in compliance. Weights and counterweights. On my best days, I find balance. On my worst days, I nap through the hours during which I would otherwise have had to make a choice. I can never, it seems, get enough sleep.
I will never be able to explain this to a medical professional. It's not simply that my perception of my own body is distorted. I see double; I see my body through both my eyes and yours. My vision is multiplied into infinity—one time for every person that has seen, appraised, loved, hated my body. The eye of a fly consists of at least 3,000 individual lenses. The fly experiences the world as mosaic, as patchwork. I have never felt such kinship with the housefly. What am I doing if not crashing against the same windowpane over and over again? I am dizzy, drunk on an overabundance of perspectives.
She burns like incense in this light. How long
will the sheet remember the heat of her? She stands,
each vertebra a prayer bead. She is a waterfall
moving in reverse. The only thing
to be regretted is that she cannot watch
her heart pump. Her first instinct, always,
is to maroon her clothes, to move
through the world nude. With long hair.
I find that I don’t have middle-of-the-road days. I slide along a rosary of best days and worst days. Body and landscape. Shame and shame. Perhaps I should have been praying for middle-of-the-road days all along. Tomorrow, I will pray for all things gentle, neutral, and moderate. Tomorrow, I will pray for a swatch of sunlight in which to sit.
Caroline Taylor is an MFA candidate at the University of Oregon (and is thrilled to now be able to call herself an 'Oregonian'). She is a graduate of Truman State University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the campus literary magazine. Her work has appeared in Storm Cellar, The Rising Phoenix Review, and Outrageous Fortune, among others.
The Ekphrastic Review
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