On Beauty

On Beauty
by Theodora Goss

I was trying to describe to you my idea of beauty:
how it consists of complexity within simplicity,
multiplicity within unity,
variety in harmony with itself,
like the serrated edges of a maple leaf,
the hexagonal points of a snowflake,
the gradations of brown on a hawk’s feathers.
It is the tension of the many
within one, like the peaks
of the Rockies, purple at sunset.

I explained it all so badly,
and going back to Hogarth’s line of beauty,
to Addison and Burke and Kant,
would have made the situation so much worse.

And yet look at yourself: singular,
yet infinitely complex,
multiplicitous, variable, like clouds
against an afternoon sky, like the waves of the Atlantic,
like all the visible stars of a summer night,
demonstrating what I mean by beauty
more neatly than any nineteenth-century philosopher.

(The image is The Floating World by Utagawa Hiroshige.)

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Two Cities

Two Cities
by Theodora Goss

Here, beneath the snows of February,
I think of you, so very far away,
in a city made of poetry and time,
painted like sunflowers and zinnias,
yellow and orange and deep rose,
where sunlight falls on the green river
and people are drinking strong coffee
around glass tables in small caf├ęs.

Here in this city of gray stone
that has barricaded itself against winter,
all the doors shut like eyes, the automobiles
silent on roads covered with ice and salt,
even the pigeons sleeping, feathers ruffled
by a harsh wind blowing from the north,
only the branches of bare trees
creaking like stairs in an old house,

I huddle by the radiator, remembering
when I last walked along those ancient streets
beneath stucco angels and neoclassical gods,
or through squares scented with lavender.
Your words bring it back to me again:
the city of dreams, city of my imagination,
more beautiful because you are in it,
sending me occasional postcards

that I stuff in my pockets so when I go outside
into the bitter air, which freezes tears
against my face, which turns my nose red
and makes my fingers ache despite thick gloves,
I can put my hands in my pockets. Your words,
those images, keep them warm enough
to avoid losing all sensation.

(The image is Woman Leaning with Dog and Still Life by Pierre Bonnard.)

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A Realization

A Realization
by Theodora Goss

One day I noticed that I was standing on nothing at all,
not a floor of wide pine boards fixed down with iron nails,
not a forest floor with last year’s litter of oak leaves,
not a meadow of grasses that would scratch my ankles,
dotted with cornflowers, poppies, and Queen Anne’s lace.
Not even a concrete sidewalk on which puddles
from yesterday’s rains reflected the gray sky.
Beneath me was only darkness.

Like a night without moon or stars,
like a black pigment that absorbs light,
like an empty well without walls or discernible bottom
into which I could fall without making a sound.

I was so afraid that I could not step forward
or backward. I could not walk
in any direction. For a while
I stood there, not knowing what to do
with myself. And then
I started to dance.

(The image is Evening by Gabriel Ferrier.)

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The Mere King

The Mere King
by Theodora Goss

The mere king lives in the murk and mud,
and I would rescue him if I could,
but another witch cursed him long ago,
and how to break it, I just don’t know.
I don’t think the kiss of true love would do,
or I’d attempt it — there’s not much to
the process, though I’m not a princess fair.
You just have to look at my long green hair
to notice that, and my yellow eyes.
I’m attractive in my own way, and wise
in secrets and spells, so I think the king
would find me sufficiently alluring.
But there’s more to it, that’s what I fear,
when he stares down with such despair
at the deep green water in slimy pools
while out of his beard grow pale toadstools
and robins build a nest in his hair.
Sometimes I wish I didn’t care
so much what became of him — a witch
should have no heart, should feel no ache
in her chest at all. Alas for me
that I did not remove it properly
and tie it up in a burlap sack,
then hang it from an ancient oak,
where it would not hear the mere king groan
and weep with pity, and be undone.

(The image is an illustration by John Bauer.)

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A Wish

A Wish
by Theodora Goss

And you, my dear, my darling,
what would I wish for you?
That all the stars were starlings,
and all the stories true.

That all the beasts that wander
beneath the darkling trees
would bow to your dominion,
and you would sail the seas

to islands made of amber
beyond the ends of time,
and I could give you all the world
within this silly rhyme.

(The image is by Jessie Wilcox Smith.)

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Another Conversation

Another Conversation
by Theodora Goss

Over time, he said, as you get used to me,
I will become less interesting. And he smiled,
as though he had said something important,
provided some insight into the operations of the world,
when all he had done was forge himself an invisible
suit of armor, so someday he could remind me —
remember, I told you you would get tired
of me in time, remember I warned you
you would eventually find me as predictable
as a book you’ve already read, or last year’s fashions.

I did not know how to tell him that, certainly,
over time I would start to find him as tiresome
as birds returning each spring, or as clouds
that gather and disperse, always the same yet different,
or as water drops forming streams, rivers, oceans,
or the leaves on a sugar maple — all similar, each exquisitely itself,
or the proverbial snowflakes, not one in a winter alike.
He would have thought I was being melodramatic,
making promises I could not keep, human nature
being what it is. So instead I told him
he was underestimating me, and left it at that,
trusting time to show which one of us was right.
Meanwhile, dusk fell, as it always does, and the moon
rose, as it has for centuries over this city,
shining faithfully on the rows of apartment houses,
the park with its wrought iron benches,
its pond on which two swans were sleeping, heads curled
under their wings, its linden trees
releasing, once again, their scent into the darkness.

(The image is Bonchurch, Isle of Wight by John Atkinson Grimshaw.)

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The Artist’s Wife

The Artist’s Wife
by Theodora Goss

She made the appointments, writing them
in a black ledger: Mrs. Sutton-Jones,
Countess Baransky, the Honorable Maude Rudge.
She was the only one he trusted to clean the studio.
He would not accept a maid, who might be careless
or even worse, curious,
touching his paints, his palette, or his easel,
on which the Honorable Maude was propped,
drying into immortality.
Sometimes he asked her to mix his pigments,
stirring the powders into linseed oil,
cadmium, cerulian, umber,
sienna, veridian.

She has never put a brush to canvas,
but in her daughter’s bedroom,
painted ivy climbs one side of the fireplace,
winds in a riot of curls and tendrils
over the mantel and then trails back down
the other side. Among the leaves
hide squirrels and robins.
Above the mantelpiece is an owl, staring
with eyes like moons.
Low down, close to the floorboards,
a black cat slinks toward a mouse hole,
so lifelike you would expect it to arch its back
and rub against your ankle, meowing.
The curtains are embroidered with red poppies,
the bedspread is appliqued
with silver stars.

She will tell you that her husband is the artist,
not she — that she just likes to work with her hands,
sew and embroider, even paint a little,
nothing serious, decorative work.

When she and her daughter bake together
in the kitchen, so much smaller than his studio,
the tea cakes are shaped like roses
with icing made from powdered sugar
and carmine.

(The image is Karin Larsson by Carl Larsson.)

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