How do you paint the color of bone, the pelvis where the flesh
has been cut away? For more than two days we’ve soaked in bleach
the ivory girdle of the deer my son killed. Every few hours I check
the bucket so I can watch the dissolution, the falling away of the life
that can’t last. Think of O’Keeffe’s inheritance. What her hands
were given by the skeleton of the world. What she was expected
to give back. Who doesn’t want to hear a holy word echoing
along the rock’s split lip? But to hunt means to stalk in silence, to listen
for the solace in an animal’s missed step. Early on I learned
from my grandmother to fish is to search the sea by sending a line
down its length. When my sister caught the eel, we didn’t know
what to do. The only other person on the bridge was a black man
seated on a five-gallon drum. He took the rod, laid it on the ground,
and in one stroke severed the head, held the dancing curve until it slowed,
then stuffed it in a bag. We slipped the hook from between the teeth, ran
our fingers across the ridges. My sister peered through the cut hose
and wouldn’t tell me what she saw. Today I stare at the shadows
in the valley, see what can be seen through the hole in the pelvis
where the ball of the femur should rest. The sky’s different
framed like this. When there’s nothing around it, it seems endless.
After Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Pelvis with the Distance” (1943)
I’m certainly not the only writer who secretly wishes he was a painter. My earliest impulses toward language were descriptive, imagistic, rooted in the desire to frame an experience in much the same way some of my favorite artists had done. I tried to sketch, to draw what I saw, but failed miserably.
Memory is a faulty engine and mine burns oil these days, but I think it was my sophomore year in college, some 30 years ago, when I first read Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Ekphrastic poetry opened an intermediary space for me. While I wasn’t going to become a painter, I could commune with the likes of O’Keeffe and Andrew Wyeth and Thomas Hart Benton and Charles Burchfield by writing poems in response to their paintings.
Art can be a catalyst for other art, and the conversation between art objects, thankfully, isn’t rational or expository. My poems often work through association, and so a few years ago as I flipped through the pages of a book of O’Keeffe’s paintings I moved from the pelvis as aperture onto the desert landscape of her homeground to my place in Central Pennsylvania, a world with a strong hunting culture, and then, shifting in time and geography, to a day where I fished with my sister on a bridge in Connecticut.
That eel we caught as children, that deer my son killed to help feed our family, all those bodies that make up the only existence we know, help to frame the ever present question so much of my writing returns to again and again: What’s the proper perspective as we consider what goes on even as we pass away?
Todd Davis is the author of four books of poems, most recently In the Kingdom of the Ditch and The Least of These, both published by Michigan State University Press. He also edited Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball and Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets. Todd's piece, "Perspective," is featured in issue 297.2.