TUESDAY: The Studio at 56, Rue de l’Ouest

BY JANA HARRIS

This poem is The Horse Fair, the author’s collection of poems on the life and art of  French animaliere  Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899). Copyright is held by the author.

from Part III:  Provenance, Paris 1842-1848

With my stepmother came order
an ideal place for everything — but
I never seemed to get it right.
Couldn’t I see dirt?  “Perfection,”
I replied, is reserved for the atelier,
not the kitchen. No matter what
our quibble, Mamiche reminded me
there was Pere’s bad heart
to consider. He became winded
walking up a flight of stairs. 

Rosa, dinner plates
exactly three fingers away
from the table’s edge
— or
something terrible would happen.
I needed to prepare for marriage,
to which she pledged every milligram
of her match-making flair, though
Mamiche seldom held such a flinty grip
on my brothers, or her son,
who came to live with us,
as did my little sister — both
with a gift for drawing.

Hippolyte, Juliette, ’Dodore, Auguste;
I was captain of our little troop and spent
every daylight hour instructing while
mixing paints or executing brushwork —
my pictures  the currency that kept
our coal grate glowing.
I began to rely more heavily
on my childhood friend
Mlle. Micas, trading her
sketching lessons for assistance.

It felt suddenly crowded
in our Rue Rumford flat. I needed
my own studio, but had
no time to search. Man-to-man,
M. Micas complained to Pere
that my talents were strangled,
did he want me to be a drawing teacher
all my life? Pere sputtered,
he could not bear the added cost. 
Living under such discord, Natalie said,
spawned my unease. What
was it about her eyes on me?
Always on the lookout
for concerns or worries or just
jigging up and down, happy
with some small achievement
as she traced my drawing
of a cow lying down in a pasture
and transferred it to canvas.

It was Mother Micas who
took action, finding a room
in a warren — what had it been, cloisters
for indentured colonists? —
my first studio. Just Natalie and me
unfettered by family or flirting men, she
all grown up, tall as a crane,
her tallowy cheeks turned
to wild strawberries.

I painted; Natalie stretched canvases.
At noon we grilled her cutlets
on skewers in the open door
of our potbellied stove, kneeling
on bare boards, knees touching,
the blue smocking on our forearms
rubbing together as red juices ran off
into a saucer where we dipped
my ration of fried potatoes
from Mamiche’s kitchen.

So delicious it hardly seemed
to be happening
in the unpretending world.

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