A Letter from Worpswede, February 1905
Milly, if I had made three good paintings in my life
I could die now. But I haven’t made one.
In two days I’ll be twenty-nine.
Dear sister, how good you are to believe in me,
or want to, even in this dull time
when I have no proof of any becoming,
except what the family calls my arrogance.
I avoid the studio now, eight years of oils
and sketches stacked against the walls.
Study the masters, Father said, meaning
you will never be one, meaning revere technique
to learn some humility. Otto tells me:
learn to draw. I want to say Otto
look at your hand, do you see lines around it?
If I have masters, they are not the great Germans
anymore. I’d go back to those ancient
anonymous makers of the unforgettable
dark eyes awaiting eternity. Or follow Cezanne
who alone sees that color is truth and that’s
what painters are for. Why, to be, must I be willing
to be unkind? Well I must be, and I am willing.
Oh Milly, I’ll be all right. I get like this
in February when spring and Paris are too far off
and my brushes turn stiff while I sit
on the opposite end of the couch reading in French
and Otto makes entries in his notebook entitled “Ideals”
and had no idea yet of my travel plans. I want to be
equally unaware of the way he turns his pipe to the side
to see the page, how he turns out studies
day after day and will overpaint, not realizing
the studies themselves are lovelier than anything
that buys us food. If only the sun would come out,
I’d insist on a skating tour in the bright cold.
You see? It’s only my old winter mood.
This poem was previously published in the anthology Sister Stew: Poetry and Fiction by Women, Bamboo Ridge Press, 1991.
Becoming Something (Letter to Otto Modersohn)
How I loved you, Dear Red.
Don’t send my own letters as proof.
I called you my King.
I gave you my whole round soul
but I need it back.
If you want me to write to you now
it must be about art.
I don’t even know how to sign
this letter. No longer Modersohn.
Not Becker either.
I’m nothing until I create
colours as dazzling as skin
in sunlight, a pious nude
from the concave side.
I have begun.
I once was a little green kite
you flew on the moor.
Unused to thin air
I bobbled and trembled at first,
kept dipping back down toward the birches,
the small black sails of Worpswede.
But I’m finished with brooding.
My colours change in this atmosphere.
A yellow coltsfoot held toward the sun
gives off its own light. I’m soaring again
Red Beard, this time with no string.
I see you now only because
I know you are there.
But I can see Paris, the world, from here.
Infant Nursing: Sketch by Paula Becker, 1902
Not beautiful this baby, but intent
on satisfaction. In the centre of this portrait
his lower lip protrudes, its wet inner rim
supporting the nipple pulled and elongated by his tongue.
Eyes and mind are shut.
He is his mouth and all that milk
is becoming him. The strongest lines form contours
of his head, his cheek, her breast, his lips, her lips.
His infancy is round. Maternity is round.
Her tender concentration, one arm cradling
the surprising heaviness of his head.
Like him she will not move until
he’s had enough. She strokes his cheek
with her rough thumb.
This poem was previously published in Virginia Quarterly Review Autumn 1989.
Young Girl with Flower Vases
No one will tell this girl
to put others first
or give her words
to be read in silence.
No one will cover her up
when her father enters the room.
Clothes for her
will be merely ceremonial
ribbons for the soul.
This is no child to play with.
Consult her about grave things:
how long you may have left and whether
your father ever will
acknowledge you. She’ll respond
in a yellow-petalled whisper
and can no more be wrong
than sun can on the roof
or some leaf we can’t identify.
“Young Girl with Flower Vases” was previously published in the anthology Sister Stew: Poetry and Fiction by Women, Bamboo Ridge Press, 1991.
Self Portrait with Hand on Chin, 1906/07
I catch these eyelids under putty brows
with seven strokes of dusky flamingo,
sunset yellow rose. Her eyes,
though they have lost their curiosity
to a sort of chalky needlessness,
keep gazing after something on my right. I
try moving so that something will be me--
farther and farther over, following,
until I’m even with the edge.
They look still farther. At last
she is simply unaware of me.
What is that look?
Something rising wonderfully
open-eyed but without urgency,
with hushed authority,
as if from Egyptian tombs.
Already settling into a thick and thickening
yellow-green, her lips are slightly
pulled apart by her own fingers
before they close again and she begins to hum
from everywhere, a living stone.
Sue Cowing lives in Honolulu where she taught history and Asian Studies for sixteen years before leaving teaching to write. She has an MFA–in-Writing from Vermont College, and has published poems in numerous journals and anthologies including Virginia Quarterly Review, Cream City Review, and The Denny Poems. Her books include Fire In The Sea: An Anthology of Poetry and Art (University of Hawai‘i Press); My Dog Has Flies: Poetry for Hawai‘i’s Kids (BeachHouse Publishing); a novel, You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda Books and Usborne UK); and The Octopus of Imagination, a chapbook of her poems self-published during COVID shutdown.
The Ekphrastic Review
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