The Crazy Ones

The Crazy Ones
by Theodora Goss

Count me among the crazy ones,
although there are days when I look as sensible
as a pair of shoes: brown oxfords, scuffed
and a little down at the heels. But there are nights
when I have kicked them off and danced
barefoot until dawn, by the ocean,
watching the sun come up. Or worn
silver sandals and given the moon a run for her money.

There are days when I have found myself
in another country altogether, known
where I am because my phone
showed me the time and weather report.
Days when I’ve done what I should have not have,
just for the hell of it — choosing to feel the flames
licking around my ankles over the sanity
of the ordinary.

I have made irrational choices,
but they have been my choices, whether to fall
or fly. It’s just that I keep forgetting to wear
a parachute. This is a metaphor:
count me among the crazy, not stupid.

And the problem is that the sky
keeps calling. I say I’m afraid of heights,
but I’m not afraid of heights. I’m afraid
of the impulse to jump.

Count me among the dreamers
and disasters, although I brush my teeth,
and pay my bills, and make my bed in the morning.
Although I have somehow managed, so far,
not to kick off a pair of appropriate black pumps
and dance at funerals.

(The image is Circe Invidiosa by John William Waterhouse.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Restoring Old Paintings

Restoring Old Paintings
by Theodora Goss

The passage of time has faded them:
it has dimmed the Madonna’s shining face
with candle smoke, it has spread a thin layer
of grime over the elegant lady’s white gloves,
smirched her lace. The king’s spaniel is dirty,
as he never was in life.

They are no longer as beautiful
as they once were: the lady’s hair is no longer
a glorious riot of golden threads
woven through with pearls. The spaniel’s fur
is no longer white and brown, just brown,
and the infant Jesus, putting his hand
up to his mother’s cheek, looks as though
he would like to wipe away the smudge
of centuries.

And so the art restorer comes
to lift it all away — the grime, the soot, the dirt,
repair decay, repaint discolorations
where a canvas was exposed to sunlight
or humidity. It takes a particular eye,
an ability to see and sense
what is time, what is the artist,
to restore what was to its (nearly)
original splendor. There is something heroic
in the endeavor, almost godlike.

Imagine: all those centuries
of worship suddenly gone, like candle smoke
floating up into the vault of the cathedral.
The revolutions during which a king’s spaniel
must be hidden in the cellar, behind barrels
of wine, undone. The lady’s age erased,
although the lady herself lies
in a stone coffin, air and bone,
alive now only in effigy.

There is a kind of arrogance
that drives us to deny the past
and process, a denial
of death, even when it is our own,
and inevitable. We like to think
that we too are precious works of art,
that someday a Great Restorer will come
to strip away our old varnish, repair
any rips in our canvas, return
us to what we once were,
bright and fresh
as the artist’s vision.

The image is Madonna and Child by Pompeo Batoni.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Falcon

The Falcon
by Theodora Goss

Once, there was a man who was also a falcon.

I do not know
if he had been a falcon in a previous life
or if at night he transformed into a falcon
or if in dreams he flew over pine forests
in falcon form.

All I know
is that when I looked into his eyes
I saw the falcon there:
the curved beak, the wild stare,
long pinions for soaring down the wind
that blows from mountain peaks covered with snow
into the valleys below.
When he turned, it was with a swift,
unexpected grace, like the memory of circling aloft,
and when he spoke I could hear the echo
of a falcon’s keening cries.

What do you say to a falcon man?
You cannot say: I know what you are,
wind-rider, sky-seeker.
I know how quickly you dive,
how abruptly you bank and fall,
winged knife, air-cleaver.
I know how from up there
life looks small, and freedom
is the only essential element.
I know how your presence defines
the firmament: it is all the blue
spaces that are not you.

What would he say? Would he laugh
dismissively, then turn away?
Or fix me with his eyes,
hypnotic, incomprehensible,
as though I were a hare
hiding among the meadow grasses, flicking my ears,
listening for sounds of danger? It would be
an acknowledgment
that I had seen and understood
something fundamental:
what was, if not necessarily
what it meant.

(The image is by Ohara Koson.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Mysterious Miss Tickle

The Mysterious Miss Tickle
by Theodora Goss

Miss Tickle owns a bookshop on the square
called Antique Books and Oddments, where she sells
old maps, and postcards sent from strange hotels,
and photographs of people you don’t know
in black and white, rain-spattered travel guides
to places like Ceylon and Samarkand,
one called Constantinople on Five Pounds
a Day, a Sanskrit-English dictionary,
and all the Nancy Drews, including ones
I’ve never seen in the public library,
like Death by Henbane, where Nancy, George, and Bess
become witches, form a coven, and solve a murder.
I think it’s one of my favorites. After school,
Miss Tickle lets me sit in the battered armchair
in a corner of the shop, beneath The Collected
Poems of Sappho, where I do my homework
or play with her various decks of tarot cards.
She has seven, one for each day of the week.
She’s hopeless at multiplication, but her cat,
Ebenezer, is pretty good, so he helps me out.

I’ve decided that someday I’m going to be like Miss Tickle,
with long black hair all the way down my back,
a cat named after a character from Dickens,
though maybe less talkative than Ebenezer,
who can be annoying, a closetful of skirts
in blue and purple that swirl around my shins,
a coat with the moon and all the constellations
embroidered on its lapels, and sparkly eyeshadow.
Of course my dad, who’s an accountant, wants me
to be an accountant too, but I think I’d rather
be a witch or own a bookshop, and Miss Tickle
says I can do all three if I really want to,
that learning math can help you cast better spells.
Hers, she says, are always a little slipshod.

The people in town think Miss Tickel’s a little strange.
No one else around here goes out to watch the bats
at twilight, or brings home toads in tupperware
to put in their gardens. She doesn’t eat them, whatever
Mr. Nowak, the grocer, says — I think he’s joking.
No one else keeps newts in a tank, just tropical fish.
Other people use aspirin, not a willow tincture.
Still, they mostly accept her. I mean, she pays her taxes
like anyone else. Though the kids at school suspect
that she flies overhead on a broomstick on windy nights,
with her black hair whipping around her. Miss Finch, the librarian,
says she’s seen her almost crash into the steeple
of the Methodist Church. I’m the only one who knows
that she landed badly that night and sprained her ankle.
She told me the broom was in a bad mood, and threw her.

Sure, I have friends my own age to eat lunch with at school,
but Miss Tickle doesn’t seem old, though she isn’t young:
somewhere between twenty and two hundred.
Her idea of dinner is chocolate cake, and for fun
she plays checkers with her shadow, who usually beats her,
or concocts natural remedies out of toadstools
(she insists they’ve never poisoned anyone),
or recites lines from Shakespeare she knows by heart.
Yes, someday I want to be like Miss Tickle, although
my hair isn’t long and black, just red and curly,
unfortunately. But I’m working on changing that.
I figure magic works as well as hair dye.
I’ve asked her to teach me some spells, and I can already
light the tips of my fingers on fire, and wiggle my ears,
and levitate, just a little. But give me time.
She says when I’m old enough, she’ll leave me the bookshop,
then she’ll retire and go where witches go
(I think it’s on the dark side of the moon).

Meanwhile, I’ll curl up here in the battered armchair
with a batch of cookies that are only a little burned,
but they’re chocolate chip, so it doesn’t really matter,
ignoring Ebenezer, and start on a chapter
of the Philosophical Works of someone named Hypatia
of Alexandria, which is more interesting
then you would expect, judging from the cover,
while Miss Tickle rings up a customer, then calls
to the back of the bookshop, “Would you like some tea?
I’ll put the kettle on, my dear, if you’ll join me!”

(The image is by Achille Mauzan.)

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Man Reading About Munkácsy

The Man Reading About Munkácsy
by Theodora Goss

There is a man reading about Mihály Munkácsy,
the nineteenth-century Hungarian painter, sitting across from me
on the bus — the man, I mean, not Munkácsy, who died
in 1900. He is reading what looks like a biography
with illustrations called Munkácsy: Life and Works.
I think he must have dropped it in a puddle
because the front cover has that characteristic ripple
of paper that has been in contact with water.
Still, on it you can see
Munkácsy’s self-portrait, bearded, with a wild halo of hair
and resolute eyes, radiating disapproval.

If you know anything about Munkácsy, and why should you,
in this world that has so little use for artists,
you will know that he is famous primarily for his genre paintings,
like a picture of a condemned man sitting in a prison cell
having eaten his last supper, waiting only for death.
He and the candles on the table will soon be snuffed out.
Or a picture of a woman churning butter,
although he also painted society ladies
sitting in their conservatories — who doesn’t?
We should not condemn artists for such frivolity. Everyone,
except maybe art critics and philosophy professors,
likes a pretty picture of flowers.

His most famous painting is a triptych of Christ
presented to Pilate, then condemned to death by the crowd,
and finally crucified in magnificent chiaroscuro.

Toward the end of his life, with his mind destroyed by syphilis,
he painted a picture called The Victim of Flowers,
in which a woman reclining against a cushion,
one breast bare, the other half-covered by her evening gown,
is menaced by blossoms: poppies, rudbeckias, freesias.
They hover over her, the poppies’ pink mouths gaping,
the rudbeckias’ black eyes glaring, like a floral nightmare.
Some are climbing up from her groin to her torso.
And she, lying on the brown pelt of her hair,
wrapped only in luminous skin and a wisp of fabric,
is lost in ecstatic, languorous contemplation
of something outside the canvas — perhaps the artist.

At the end of his life, Munkácsy was confined
to a mental hospital near Bonn, where he finally collapsed
and died. He is buried near Budapest.
The man, who has a patch on one knee of his trousers
and frayed cuffs on his checked wool jacket, has almost finished
his book, judging from the number of pages turned,
so he must be reading about the end of Munkácsy’s life.
Slowly, under his spectacles, a tear rolls down.

Meanwhile, that fierce wild face is staring at me
from the cover with such concentration
that I feel the straps of my sundress slip from my shoulders,
baring too much flesh for public transportation.
Poppies and rudbeckias are growing from the seat around me
until they come up to my breasts. I am bathed in their perfume,
and the freesias like red trumpets are making a sound
not unlike a bus horn, but melodious.
I am blushing and furious at art and all damn artists.
Honestly if I could, I would rip that book
from the man’s gnarled hands, and slap Munkácsy’s face
good and hard — if it weren’t impolite, and also
if the scent of the poppies weren’t quite so overpowering.

(The image is The Victim of Flowers by Mihály Munkácsy.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Iris

The Iris
by Theodora Goss

All of life is trouble.
It is trouble simply to get out of bed in the morning,
to leave the safety of cool sheets, like swaddling clothes
or shrouds. Each evening,
we crawl back into the darkness we first came from
and to which we are continually returning:
the sea, the womb, the grave.

It is trouble to put on our clothes, fitting ourselves
into the general fabric of society, to find
as we look at ourselves in the badly
lit bathroom mirror, the right mindset
to face the day. To remain polite, productive,
from our pocket handkerchiefs
to our socks. We tie our shoe laces and tighten
the straps of our wrist watches.

It is trouble to walk out into the street
without being hit by a bus, without
tripping over the curb. To get through the day
without tripping over our intentions or a joke.

On the other hand, consider:
it is trouble for the iris
to push itself up through the ground,
to unfurl its purple standards, despite wind and rain,
so bees can rub themselves against the yellow fur
on its lighter sepals.

So that you, walking in the park,
with your lunch in a brown paper bag, can sit on a bench
and lose yourself in a range of blues and purples
as deep as twilight.

(The image is Irises by Claude Monet.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Thoughts While Sitting on Top of a Cliff in Ireland

Thoughts While Sitting on Top of a Cliff in Ireland
by Theodora Goss

The sea below me
is furling and unfurling
like a banner. I wonder
whose banner it is, whose standard
is so blue.

There is a yellow flower
growing on the rock, with its roots
in the rock itself. Why, I wonder, has it chosen
to grow there, instead of in the soft, crumbling soil?
Does it like the challenge?

The seagulls are mewing. They are the cats
of the sky: insistent, irascible.

Above me, the clouds
are arranged in furrows. I wonder
who ploughs them.

The wind is blowing the grasses
as it blows my hair. I am both tangled
and confused. Where am I going
when I leave this island? Sometimes I wish
that like the grass, I could remain rooted.

Far below me, on the sand,
the gray seals are lying
still in the sunlight. Every once in a while,
one of them raises its head
and barks. I too sometimes feel
the need to exclaim
at the magnificence of this world.

The small stone cottages,
with their whitewash long ago washed off
by rain, their tarred felt roofs long ago
torn off by wind, huddle
into the hillside the way a leveret curls
into its mother’s belly, for warmth
and nourishment.

When this island was inhabited,
it had no church, no hospital, no shops,
no post office. Only two schools,
Catholic and Protestant. Only one of those,
supported by English coffers,
distributed free soup.

Of the people who once lived here, all that is left
are their photographs on the walls of the visitors’ center
and a video in which you can hear them speaking
through letters and diaries read
in the original Irish
with subtitles.

Soon, I will need to catch
the boat back to the mainland
and figure out my life.
Until then, all that matters
is the sunlight on my arms, and this butterfly
with its orange and brown wings
fluttering suspended,
endlessly restless in an eternal present.

It has been almost a hundred years
since anyone lived here.
I wonder if the rocks, the grasses,
the waves below, the seals, the seagulls,
miss them. I’m quite sure
the flowers, which have such short memories,
do not.

Neither will they miss me
after the air has flowed over and filled in
my absence.

(The image is Landscape in Northern Ireland by Fred Balshaw.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment