Two Poems by Elizabeth Willis

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SELF-PORTRAIT WITH IMAGINARY BROTHER

Elizabeth Willis

           after Willem de Kooning

 

Eventually the “imaginary brother”

becomes a wife or a lover, a daughter

or a wife. A “Woman Sitting” (1943)

is sitting in the middle of a war.

The breast that is showing

does not appear to be loved.

It lives in a society of thieves:

no hands.  Even the pink lady

isn’t pink, she’s a head full of teeth. Now

it’s 1948. Painters may not be trembling,

but the world is.  A secretary

turns over like a piece of furniture,

her paint running upward impossibly

from the face.  She’ll do anything you say.

 




OIL AND WATER

In the painting was an ocean, as in the voice a history.

 

What was the woman picking up as she turned?

 

I filled the bathtub with water. I stocked up on wood. I thought about the spark

that sets the oil on fire, the fire that turns the water into steam.

 

It was more like sailing than sleeping. An eye adjusting to the dark.

 

A picture giving up its face.

 

Paper. Scissors. Water.

 

This is what the work is like.

 

A story climbs the stairs until its shoes will never dry, until there is no way to

descend.

 

If you were sleeping in the doorway. If you had lain down in the tunnel. If your

feet were wrapped in plastic.

 

If you saw the water like a green, unpeopled train.

 

If you heard the clatter of a canefield.

 

This dirty blue, this travertine. This almost-snow.

 

Dear Kamau.

 

Dear Michelle.

 

Dear Lorenzo of Texas and of Vietnam.

 

It’s impossible to say what will last until it’s gone.

 

Dear Paul of the elaborate Russian dream.

 

I’ve been trying to catch your eye, but you’re too busy kicking out the sun.

 

On film, the tower was an interruption. The axis of a shadow.

 

A hole into which another world was pouring.

 

I watched you watch the screen.

 

Dear mother of intention. Dear face in the clouds.

 

Dear Shelley of poetry.

 

Dear Lorca, you are king of the forest.

 

Your forest a dream made of air.

 

Dear city of defenses.

 

Dear Emma of anarchy.

 

Dear David on the pier.

 

Dear Barbara of the Genji.

 

Dear John.

 

Dear shipwrecked George.

 

Dear auburn water of the basement.

 

I tried to call you.

 

Dear girl in the bakery, you should be in school.

 

The shore is curatorial.

 

A drawing erased without the bitterness of friendship, without the gesture of a

dare.

 

The symbol of disaster is mechanical. A fan, a reactor, a bomb.

 

It is not, as in a watercolor by Hiroshige, a hand composed of water reaching

toward you as you run.

 

In the ocean is a painting, as in the page a voice.

 

To those who don’t know we are drowning, the ocean has nothing to say.