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“Hunger,” “Red Bath,” It Is Not a Bridge,” “The Hart”


The slip was not satin, but poppy.
A linen sky gone pale and the long
cascading drapes and walls that same cool white
but the cypress, its fallen needles, the rooftops
were umber, the fence, the beginning of night:
small, invisible cries, and like a wing, that wooden
fence grew large with shadow as its shape
entered the window, umber, 
amber bulbs exposed below
the flaring black shade,
plump with filament, lit, pendulous
and, it seemed, beginning to rise 
as the languor of too many months-without-end—
enforced, unnatural languor—
had gathered, like silk, into the crack of thigh
against bent knee, the seam of fleshy upper arm,
crease of elbow, the mystery
of triangle made by the shade of red cloth fallen high over leg,
the shape the covered nipples made as the breasts splayed
to balance a hand flung backward, out of sight and
into foreshadowing, into the scent of the ganja filling the hallway
—nearly strong as skunk—curving its way below the door and into the room
through the rough-hewn gap where light crept through at night
across the closed face, brow held tight as scar above the nose,
kohled eyes focused by a dust mote on the floor or the inner
lip of the terracotta urn. 
Scent of sugar, sweat, tobacco seeping through the old pipes,
clinging to the pillows like a second skin.
Galangal nights. Arpeggiated dawn.
Empty Newport pack on the hellstrip.
Mind like ribbons. Leather bangs.
Time beyond girdle, the giving up, 
the belly abundant, the giving in,
again, again, again, again, again.


Red Bath

It bothers you, the ocean—
           the thousand-thousand surfaces          colliding in cold light,
                                                         the way the water seems unjoined

and distant—
            not because of looking down from this great height,
                       but something else.

They’ve put you in first class.
           You don’t feel first class—
                                                       or, really, anything.

But you can’t stop thinking—turning over
            and over that online article
about Bonnard, the recent exhibition, and that painting:
                                                                                             two lovers—

                           one about to be his wife
at the base of the picture,
            facing in, three-quarter profile,
                                            something else occluded

in the brushstroke, yes,                                 but brushstroke as execution

                                    of the same perception darkening
his gaze, much later, in that angular
            and razorlike self-portrait
in the mirror of the bathroom,
             as though shaving            or about to shave.

The other lover, central, is a source of light—

           several alterations later maybe it’s grown hard
to identify the exact measurements and colors
                        of the eyes—but their effect is unmistakable.   Recognized.

                        And maybe her hair
was really that bright—more light than pale, more midday
            haystack under sun than moon, her face a ruddy
                         outdoor-colored hue of pink.
                                                                       It’s her effect
he gets at with his brush, more than her features.

We’d recognize her even
            in an airport, even from the back.
                       Or from the side.

                                 Or from a whiff of something emanating

like perfume—not scent, exactly.        Something else.

And as you recall the many tiny shingle-lights of paint
                        and how they pull the feeling of a moment
closer than the canvas, almost like a hologram,

you begin to see more clearly something far below the ocean
           —or its surface—something vaguely red, not bright,
                                                                              but like the color
of old blood, dried blood—
                                                       perhaps an immense encampment
          of kelp    or maybe, after all, the sea incarnadine, incarnate

as a low animal, amorphous, bigger than a whale, below the topaz—sea grass?
the water itself?—stretching for miles beneath the troubled, vacant surface
now grown clear or opaline or gray—
                                                        a vast and transparent collection
from the world’s spittoons,
                                 windowing the lower layer of self.

Some say she shot herself, the blonde—designed the moment, the tableau
for him to see.

Others suggest that when he finally chose, conclusively, she arranged
a far more fluid exit in the bath—

                      different in tone from the ones he painted, would keep painting
of the chosen, who remained, a constant presence, hovering near doorways

in glances, or profile, or silhouette, or partially

           hidden or rearranged in the tub by the clean refractions
of yellows and sea-green blues, her body,
                              some observe, never quite coherent
as body, anatomically adrift,
                                   almost melting into the thicker warmth
of the fleshlight of the afternoon,

hard to make out, precisely,
            or cut off above the legs—
                    as happens when one is walking casually by an open door,
after cradling, say, in one’s hands, a tiny dachshund, like a second beating heart,
     and remembers to look in:
                   never vivid.               Never whole.            Never, ever, a ghost.

And you drink the coffee as if
you’re drinking coffee, though
you can’t make out the taste

                                            as you wonder how he’d sketch the almost browning 
            on the napkin, as they say he used to do,
                       how the brush would catch the splitting,
             surfaces in light, this ruffling
   of these almost-iron
                   shifting shavings of some giant knife,

                                             or the gradual seeping up of those other colors.



It Is Not a Bridge


The bed          red        wood    with scrolls      —along the side, black ink—

the bed      or the coffin            above the river—         the water filled with bats 

       —or birds—

I stand on it—             on top of the red       wood      bed above the river

in wind—          my hair—long, black—               and all of the layers of my clothes—

swirling in wind like some cubist kimono           —the swirling squares of my robes

and maybe the blankets           I am now standing in       as I raise my white sword—

my sword, my reed    —my quill—       long         white       yellow

—as I raise my long sword         toward the fish                     above my head

riding my sleeve        like a sleigh, like a basket—           riding my sleeve

like a silk bassinette   —that whiskerfish           ready to jump in the water

before I fall               before I strike—



The Hart

         —And I to you of a white goat . . . 
                                 (Sappho, tr. Carson)
And so I imagined the way we’d come across him there,
                                             the creature—
gazing at us squarely, loosely chained
—that palimpsest of horn
a singular, curling pentimento—
his throne, a bed of rosemary and bracken
                        and birdlime.
It will not surprise you that he caught us staring—
                   or that this was the way he simply caught us.
You will remember—I’m certain—how he wore his crown:
like a cuff.
There was the way his hooves were split
                                 and the way he opened time.
We had to notice that the sky of his neck
was golden: a collar:
                        how it blended perfectly
into the metal expanse of light.
Sound was the water flowing from the fountain—
                                                                    steady sound.
Runes had fallen like petals
                                             from the roses.
You will, of course, receive this
                                             (already know it).
Mood rang through the moon—
                                  an oval in daylight,
                                                        sinking slow.
This is realism.
Under the fragrant rosemary.
The fog opens, closes.
We live inside these hills.

Sarah Maclay is the author of "Nightfall Marginalia" (What Books Press, 2023), her fifth collection of poetry.

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