Summertime When The Living is Queasy
April 29, 2009 § 2 Comments
Rachel Ruysch, Amsterdam, 1664-1750 The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals; They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat, And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me. The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea, And comes from a country far away as health. --from Tulips, by Sylvia Plath
Spring is cresting in Manhattan. The enormous tulips that neighborhood associations started planting everywhere a decade ago are lolling over their little fences, petals spread wide. Red, flame, yellow, cream, blush, purple, mauve and deep pink. In the after-dinner light they glow like moon flowers, and their suggestive droop reminds me of painting—the great Dutch still-life painters, of course, and all the artists who accepted the confines of theme (Christian or Classical, or portraits of the wealthy), choosing to spend their days with naked goddesses, those of the ample, gorgeous flesh: goddesses bathing, picnicking with the girls au naturel, or in the case of Venus, entertaining her similarly naked and chubby son.
Something was lost when artists started openly painting their wives and mistresses. Realism brought a depth of feeling—of sorrow, mortality and the charm of the everyday—but the figures were no longer the most beautiful the painter could imagine, the skin no longer as satiny, faces losing that expression of coy and serene pleasure.
The pleasure for us, in the 20th and 21st centuries, is that we didn’t and don’t often see these goddesses as perfect—too fat, we think, too limpid, faces a little too soft (Ingres’ odalisques excepted). The thrill comes from the artist’s desire poured into paint, flesh as full of light as the most ethereal sunset. It wasn’t only their bodies the artists idealized. The settings, whether forest or bedroom, were female territory. The bountiful goddesses lounged naked without fear.
Their male counterparts may have interfered with mortal women, raping them, turning them into cows and so forth, but the goddesses held their own. They were far more powerful than the Virgin Mary, who could perform miracles but not cuckold God or make her son answer to her whims. They were the women the artist wanted to submit to even as he decided the length of their tresses and the curve of their breasts, surrounding them with pillows, mirrors and tapestries—or trees, dogs and nymphs—as he chose.
This is what feminists call “The tyranny of the male gaze.” I understand the anger of being told, “There are no great female artists because women don’t have genius,” which was still bandied about when I was young, and with the grief felt at the evidence that men value youth and beauty so highly that even the loveliest woman will eventually disappoint.
I suffered from not knowing what the “female gaze” might be, for feeling like a freak for all the things I had in common with ancient goddeses: lust, erotic languor, jealousy, vanity, and most of all the desire for power in both its ‘empowering’ sense and in the wish to meddle cruelly or brilliantly in the lives of others. I wanted these qualities recognized not as those of the slut, the shrew or the castrating bitch, but rather of large-souled goddesses with their all-too-human flaws.
I shed that hope, eventually.
Even so, I was glad to see what the male gaze saw. To know what drove them to art and through life, what pink clouds piled in the evening sky, gleaming rivers, or past-their-prime tulips reminded them of. Beauty is lofty, but give a man a moment and he’ll think of sex.
I think of it too. The nights are warm now and some trees are scattering their blossoms on the sidewalk as others unfurl their colors. The streets are crowded with the young—so much so that the older couples look exotic, and older singles seem out of place, anomalies to be removed by some latter-day Guiliani.
The summer will disappoint. It always has. The year after year of golden social life, Europe and the Hamptons, Maine and Cape Cod, parties, romances, dancing on the beach, cocktails in the morning that my same-age gay neighbor remembers was never what I had. I could have it, if I’d been different. It was available, if I hadn’t been too scared to partake. It might still be available, for all I know.
But my summer will be smaller than that, and that’s okay. I want to walk in the warm darkness most nights. I intend to get to the country a few times. I’ll make love when I can. But mostly I want to read poetry again the way I used to. I want my brain full of wandering lines until I can’t understand, am utterly flummoxed by, the fact that most people have no idea why it’s read.
That’s why I felt like a freak when I was young. Not because I was female and wanted to be a great writer. Because I found poetry, Greek myths and Robert Graves’ eccentric and esoteric book The White Goddess so much more interesting than punk rock or deconstructionism that the company of my peers generally left me speechless.
Age cures a lot. Now I’m happy to talk about tulips and politics, recipes for homemade ice cream and whatever it is you’ve been doing lately. Just don’t expect me to remember the bands of the late ‘70’s and ‘80’s. I was reading Baudelaire.
O fleece that down her nape rolls, plume on plume!
O curls! O scent of nonchalance and ease!
What ecstasy! To populate this room
With memories it harbours in its gloom,
I’d shake it like a banner on the breeze.
Hot Africa and languid Asia play
(An absent world, defunct, and far away)
Within that scented forest, dark and dim.
As other souls on waves of music swim,
Mine on its perfume sails, as on the spray.
I’ll journey there, where man and sap-filled tree
Swoon in hot light for hours. Be you my sea,
Strong tresses! Be the breakers and gales
That waft me. Your black river holds, for me,
A dream of masts and rowers, flames and sails.
A port, resounding there, my soul delivers
With long deep draughts of perfumes, scent, and clamour,
Where ships, that glide through gold and purple rivers,
Fling wide their vast arms to embrace the glamour
Of skies wherein the heat forever quivers.
I’ll plunge my head in it, half drunk with pleasure —
In this black ocean that engulfs her form.
My soul, caressed with wavelets there may measure
Infinite rocking in embalmed leisure,
Creative idleness that fears no storm!
Blue tresses, like a shadow-stretching tent,
You shed the blue of heavens round and far.
Along its downy fringes as I went
I reeled half-drunken to confuse the scent
Of oil of coconuts, with musk and tar.
My hand forever in your mane so dense,
Rubies and pearls and sapphires there will sow,
That you to my desire be never slow —
Oasis of my dreams, and gourd from whence
Deep-draughted wines of memory will flow.
— Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)