He paints my portrait with gifts

The first year:
an iron lantern held a pale candle
a spark, a flame, this was our new passion
he said I tasted of peaches
when he kissed every nook and cranny
every bend and curve
the land of my buttocks
the great plains of my thighs
a tropical country his tongue travelled to
and again

The next year:
lavender from his healing garden
the greatest pleasure, he said
to be a man who loved a woman who loved a woman
lavender for his faithfulness
while I spent the odd weekend in other arms

The third year:
an earthenware teapot
memento mori, I believed at first to dust you will return
but when its empty cavern filled with tea, hot and good
tea steeped for hours in my pot-bellied mind
when I poured it out to strangers at four o’clock
I saw it was my cooking pot
my casserole of drafts

The last year: cherubim
my friends said,
a reproach for the children you never gave him
but I see the cherubim swelling into seraphim
birth-messengers who will seek me out, some day soon
I will not laugh in their face
nor ask, how can this be?
No, I will be quick to bear what they bring
go ahead, pen your sentences on my body
ecce ancilla domini

Questions and Answers

What inspired “Art”?

I attended an art show and talk in September 1988. One of the pieces was a painting of a young girl plunging her thin brown arms into a bucket of water. That image has stayed with me and forced me to write poetry. The young girl did not need a novel, a short story or a painting. She needed poems and I’ve been writing them ever since.

“Art” has now been published in my second collection as “Art: he paints my portrait in gifts.” The poem hinges on the fact that so often we give a gift because it supports our mental and emotional image of the recipient, instead of zeroing in on what the recipient’s hopes and dreams might be. The ultimate example of this is the Virgin Mary, of whom countless pieces of art have been created, all revealing the creator-artist’s inner landscape (and these artists are mostly men) rather than any objective, stand-alone existence for Mary.

So when the punchline of the poem arrives—Ecce ancilla domini—the narrator-poet takes her first small step to claiming her own artistic life, albeit a subservient one.

This poem “Art” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 165 (Summer 2000): 23-24.

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