The Art of Loss

The Art of Loss
by Theodora Goss

I think I’m going to practice losing things.
I’ll start with smaller things like the grocery list,
my glasses, that cup of tea I’m almost sure
I put down somewhere in the living room.

I’ll graduate to house keys, my mobile phone,
the umbrella I bought in the art museum gift shop,
with a pattern of Monet’s waterlilies, that turns
a gray, wet day into walking through the gardens
at Giverny. I’ve had some practice already.
The various things I have lost include my heart,
my childhood, the country where I was born, a language,
countless single socks in the clothes dryer,
several names, a profession, my grandparents.
So you see, it shouldn’t be that hard to learn
how to lose with the effortless grace of a dancer
leaping into a perfect grand jeté.

And yet, I don’t seem much better at it now
than when, as a child, I lost my favorite doll.
No other doll would do as a substitute.
The lack of her was as solid as a fact,
unalterable, an absence that I carried
instead of her and put to bed at night,
singing lullabies to her empty cradle.
So too with other absences, which feel
almost as real as what they have replaced.

Perhaps eventually I’ll be more absence
than substance. Therefore, I’m practicing beforehand.
Today I lost some time, my second pair
of glasses, and something else, I don’t remember
what it was — there’s just a nagging sense
of loss and the thought I must have put it somewhere.
It may have been you, but honestly, I’m not sure.

When I reach that state, when I am a lace curtain,
more air than fabric, or perhaps a set of chimes
you hang in the garden, hollow at the core,
I hope the wind will blow and set me fluttering
or ringing, so there will be something left,
a sound or motion I have not lost altogether,
an echo, a disturbance.

(The image is A Moment of Contemplation by Fernand Toussain.)

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Mr. Fox

Mr. Fox
by Theodora Goss

When I first fell in love with Mr. Fox, he warned me:
You can’t trust me, my dear.
Just when you think I am there,
I am gone, I am nowhere.
Look, I’m wearing a mask. Who does that? Thieves.
By the time the autumn leaves have fallen,
you will mourn my absence.

And yet, I couldn’t help it. After all,
he was wearing such a dashing red coat,
like a soldier. He had such a twinkle in his eye.
He danced so nimbly, holding my hands
in paws on which he wore black kid gloves.
His tail ended in a white tuft.
I knew about the others, of course — or at least
I’d heard rumors. I knew he was no innocent.
I knew about the one who had drowned
herself in a river, her muslin gown floating
around her. I knew about the one who had locked
herself away in a convent.

How does one fall out of love with a thief
who has already stolen one’s heart?
But I was cautious: I went to his castle in the woods.
Be bold, said the sign above the gate. Be bold.
But not too bold. I have never been good
at listening to advice, or taking it.
I was too bold, as usual.

What did I find? First, a pleasant parlor,
with blue silk curtains and rosewood furniture,
perfectly charming. Then, a library
filled with books, from Shakespeare to W.B. Yeats.
A kitchen with no implements more dangerous
than a paring knife, beside a barrel of apples
waiting to be turned into cider.
Bathrooms with modern plumbing, a dining room
that contained a mahogany table large enough
for banquets, but seldom used, judging
by the dust. Where was his secret chamber?
There must be one. On top of a desk in his study,
I’d seen a photograph of the girl who drowned,
beside a vase of lilies, like a memorial.

And there it was, at the end of a carpeted hallway.
I knew what it must lead to, that small door.
It was locked, of course, but I took out my lockpick tools
(if he was a thief, I was another).
It opened easily.

There was no blood on the floor. There were
no dead, dismembered wives hanging from hooks.
Instead, the walls were covered with masks:
fox, badger, mole, boar, weasel,
otter, squirrel, even one that resembled a tree.
All the masks he had worn, presumably.
And on one wall, opposite the window,
which badly needed washing, was a portrait
of an ordinary man with sandy hair
and tired eyes.

I locked the room behind me. At our wedding,
he said, “Are you sure, my dear?” with a toothy grin
that seemed wicked, but was, I thought, a little anxious.
“To marry the dangerous Mr. Fox?” I asked.
“Who knows, you might gobble me up,
but I’ll take my chances.” He seemed satisfied,
and swung me into a waltz. There’s a moral to this story:
ladies, have your own set of lockpick tools. Also,
be bold and wise and cunning,
like a fox.

(The image is Fox and Crescent Moon by Kobayashi Kiyochika.)

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Autumn’s Song

Autumn’s Song
by Theodora Goss

You are not alone.

If they could, the oaks would bend down to take your hands,
bowing and saying, Lady, come dance with us.
The elder bushes would offer their berries to hang
from your ears or around your neck.
The wild clematis known as Traveler’s Joy
would give you its star-shaped blossoms for your crown.
And the maples would offer their leaves,
russet and amber and gold,
for your ball gown.

The wild geese flying south would call to you, Lady,
we will tell your sister, Summer, that you are well.
You would reply, Yes, bring her this news —
the world is old, old, yet we have friends.
The squirrels gathering nuts, the garnet hips
of the wild roses, the birches with their white bark.

You would dress yourself in mist and early frost
to tread the autumn dances — the dance of fire
and fallen leaves, the expectation of snow.
And when your sister Winter pays a visit,
You would give her tea in a ceramic cup,
bread and honey on a wooden plate.

You would nod, as women do, and tell each other,
The world is more magical than we know.

You are not alone.

Listen: the pines are whispering their love,
and the sky herself, gray and low, bends down
to kiss you on both cheeks. Daughter, she says,
I am always with you. Listen: my winds are singing
autumn’s song.

The image is Autumn by Elizabeth Sonrel.

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The Sensitive Woman

The Sensitive Woman
by Theodora Goss

There are days on which I am a thunderstorm,
and days on which I am an eggshell. Today,
I am so fragile that if you breathed on me,
I would break apart. The pieces of me would lie
on the kitchen floor, over the hard gray tiles,
my torso in fragments, my heart like a shattered cup,
one eye near the sink, one near the refrigerator,
staring upward, blinking.

There is a story about a woman so sensitive
that she could be bruised by the brush of a swallow’s wing,
that the cold light of the moon would burn her cheek.
There is a story about a woman who wept at the fall
of a rose petal, at the sight of a spider’s web,
at a line from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”
There is a story about a woman who could not be
consoled when she heard a single measure of Brahms,
or watched the sun setting over Budapest.
Her tears flowed into the Danube.
There are days on which I am all these women.

I would like to write a poem comparing myself
to a thunderstorm raging down the valleys,
battering the rocks, flattening the willow trees.
But today a raindrop could drown me. Today, a breeze
could tear me apart, send ragged bits of me flying
like white tufts of milkweed from the pod.
Hush. Don’t breathe, don’t speak, handle me gently.
Today, a word of yours, no matter how kind,
would be too hard to bear.

(The image is Portrait of Dora Maar with a Crown of Flowers by Pablo Picasso.)

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The Avalanche

The Avalanche
by Theodora Goss

It occurs to me that you resemble
a beautiful avalanche. So far,
you have toppled my pine trees,
buried my villages, brought down
all the telephone wires. You leave
a trail of pristine destruction
wherever you go.

And I can only stand here,
watching white drifts of snow
cover this mountain like the feathers
of an egret perched on its peak,
while a slab of snowpack slides
down the path with a sound like giants
grinding bones between their molars —
waiting, with fear and admiration,
for the moment I too will be buried,
my mouth filled with light,
in a kind of cold radiance.

(The image is Simplon Pass: Avalanche Track by John Singer Sargent.)

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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 by Wladyslaw Theodor Benda.)

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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.

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