THE EROTIC LIFE OF ART

A SÉANCE WITH WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS
— Eileen R. Tabios


“the derivation of the adjective venereal is from Venus!...I was stunned!”
—Dr. William Carlos Williams

Perhaps it was the mysterious Chinese
girl, “bedbug-like in character,” who
slipped syphilis to Van Gogh
in Antwerp. After the painter cut off
his ear, a psychologist speculated over
how the Dutch word for ear—lel—

sounds like the Dutch slang word for penis—
lul. When memory is dominated

by fear, have you noticed how it is not
fear but Terror? How to perceive the shift

of stars without feeling them fade or fall?
The psychologist continued his theory, thus

failing, like many of us, to break a pattern of speculation.
Van Gogh gave his ear to a prostitute because

her rumpled bed still stank from Gauguin’s visit.
Have you noticed how unresolved feelings

are often masochistic? I admit relief at discovering
the pattern of longing fuels my poetry:

“Lucy, unrequited love is still a form of life?”
After his syphilis-infected, long-haired Polynesian

girls who had yet to birth memories of
a man’s distraction over their breasts,

Gauguin ended his days decrying “colonial
oppression”—what forms of physical reality

are manifested by the concept of Irony? Have you
noticed how many questions may be answered

with one word: Everything? Michelangelo
possessed incomparable draftsmanship

except for breasts. This flaw seems inexplicable
for a sculptor weaned by a wet-nurse

both daughter and wife of stone masons.
Have you noticed the seemingly random manner

that attaches a certain weight to a certain matter—
what is the significance of Michelangelo

spending hours on his back painting the Sistine
Chapel for the syphilitic Pope Julius II?

Does the importance occur through the form of the
question? Should I rephrase the question as follows:

what is the significance of Michelangelo spending
hours on his back servicing a syphilitic Christian?

How to feel the Milky Way expand because, simply,
upon my waist you once placed your hand? Now,

I wish to interrupt this poem’s flow for rupture, too,
is part of rapture; my digression here is to reveal:

horsehairs placed in a barnyard’s water trough
will turn to wriggling eels by morning. Oh, (do not laugh!)

I promise you the truth of that statement though claiming
to know Truth is “a huge responsibility.” Is this not

why Da Vinci dissected criminals who died with hard-ons
to demonstrate that erections are caused by blood

suffusing the organ, rather than the common belief
of his time that the penis is inflated by the retention

of wind? Have you noticed how scientists must
become radical if they wish to pursue ecstasy?

In my time, women have written tomes
on the inadvisability of men thinking with—

well, you know. Da Vinci’s perspective on the penis
originates from a different angle: men are wrong

to cover the penis whose separate intelligence—
that it rise or not according only to its will—warrants

the display of the penis “with much adornment.”
How may a penis be decorated? (Is redefining “over-the-top”

inevitable?) Perhaps it can be painted like a comet’s tail—
that burst of bliss before falling to gravity’s nest? No,

that simile was too obvious; let us proceed to Cellini
whose concern for his legacy included the desire

for history to acknowledge his repute as a lover. I raise,
so to speak, Cellini now to encourage the contagion

of compassion, such as warranting Cellini’s insecurities
with our interest. Once, Cellini offered a mistress

to Bacchiacca. Perhaps this truly was an act of generosity.
But have you noticed how there is no Platonic concept

for Generosity—how generosity is often motivated by mere co-
incidence? Would Cellini have offered his mistress

to Bacchiacca if she was not riddled with venereal
diseases and the two painters were not rivals? Have you

noticed how the concept of disease leaves
an invisible seam between the notions of

physical versus psychological? Our good doctor,
William Carlos Williams, remembers one Finnish

word taught by a family servant: Hamahakquivergo.
I raise this dissonance because, truth to tell,

I am wondering if I have written all these words
so far only to manifest the one Finnish word

Dr. Williams knows: Hamahakquivergo means Cobweb.
Would it be awful to have spent years writing a poem only

to discover it is over a cobweb? I intended to write on
the tangled skeins of transmissions from sexual acts. (I in-

tended to pluck from the narrative of Nigel Cawthorne’s
amusing and amused book, SEX LIVES of the GREAT

ARTISTS.) But, haven’t we all noticed by now that history
may be is a circular matter rather than a linear progression?

Cobweb. Hamahakquivergo. Well, let’s clear the throat
and continue: I like what I hear about Titian as a lover

for he seemed kind. Have we all not been children once?
Why is Kindness such an underrated virtue? The wise

 Titian did not discriminate between his daughters,
giving the illegitimate Emilia the same dowry

of 700 ducats he gave his legitimate daughter Lavinia.
Still, I admire Titian mostly for how he painted all

his nudes with their eyes open. .Have you ever made love
from beneath a blindfold? Behind the blindfold,

“desire stops time.” Trust me: try. Have you ever fucked
someone blindfolded? The diction is deliberate, you see—

when one half of a couple is blindfolded, one is a lover
while the other is a canvas, page, smoke… Have you ever

noticed: when a portrait’s subject stares back
the art object is dematerialized—the painting

transcends the surface of brushstrokes, the edge of canvas?
Truly, I like Titian and what he teaches about feminism

(and even 20th century post-modernism). But I am unsure
if I like the father of William Carlos Williams. Shortly after

his father died, the poet dreamt him walking out of a building.
“Pop! So you’re not dead!” Dr. Williams cried. His father

only looked up (squinting?) from some business letters clutched
in his hand to comment severely, “You know all that poetry

you’re writing…Well, it’s no good.” After that, Dr. Williams
said, he never dreamt of his father again. How to

perceive with tenderness, as Jose Garcia Villa once suggested?
How to see without the shade from lifting a palm over

one’s red-rimmed eyes? What is the difference between
a happily-married poet—like “I” now standing before you—

writing about adultery versus Rembrandt who was unable
to paint his second wife as a courtesan? (Is this a failure?)

Have you noticed how difficult it is to be lyrical



when one is attempting a joke? I have been trying,







you see, to insert moments of resonance in this poem



and notice now how fragile the words stand against
bawdy events I must raise as I discuss sex:

is it possible for the words “fucking” or “penis”
to generate the volta of Li-Young Lee’s favorite haiku:

Such a moon:
The thief stops in the night

to sing

What does it mean about me that as I write in the world



through this haiku, I mostly notice how its three lines disturb







the two-line form of the couplet? Have you noticed



how often we become our own worst enemies?







This time, I return to the subject of “sex” out of



a despairing resignation that I have lost so many words







and yet mustered no “significant” insight. I feel



my failure at creating the Poem versus lines etching







their aftermath on my wrinkled but welcoming brow. So, what



shall we make of Goya who painted The Nude Maja at a time







when nudes were forbidden by The Inquisition?



With some consolation, I am pleased to sense a feeling of







fortitude welling up as I offer that Goya manifested political



courage: “significant” breasts and a healthy crop of







pubic hair! Please share my joy over artists becoming



political through form versus content! But how to live







with other forms of knowledge? Such as your existence



within the city in which I measure each street—each







individual brick of stone, each slab of concrete, each inch



of tar—by their probability of receiving your light-brimmed steps







a few inches from where I may stand as a salt statue



frozen in unrequited longing? It has been so long since







I have entered a church. It has been so long since



I experienced the feeling of “walking upon a cloud”—







a phrase William Carlos Williams defines as the “calm”



that overcame him upon hearing the minister bestow







a benediction: “And may the peace of God which passeth



all understanding be and abide with you now







and forever more. Amen.” Inevitably, I come to



address Rodin. Of course The Thinker was thinking







of sex. One countess who posed for Rodin claimed



shock at his drawings of a woman “so shameless







as to take her melancholy pleasure in front of him.”



I am surprised the countess did not learn to name







a spade “space” by calling masturbation “masturbation.”



After all, this is the same woman who found it







“totally natural” that Rodin would fall on his knees



before her, take her by the feet and spread her legs.







Is a spade a “spade”? Do things become only



what they are named? Nor do I understand why







Delacroix is considered as great a diarist



as he was a painter. Once, he described a sexual







bout as “risk(ing) syphilis.” I would rather have



read Delacroix explain his decision for exposure—







did she have lovely eyes, or gave “good mouth”?



Or must I chide myself for this premature conclusion:







I have not read directly from Delacroix’s diary, only Caw-



thorne’s reference to it. I should know better than







to mistake the reproduction for what it copies. Have you



noticed the difficulty of maintaining lucidity, as if







our natural predisposition is to hide knowledge



from ourselves? Why must knowledge hurt







rather than simply offer itself like a Jackson Pollock



drip painting or the night sky where shifts, ruptures







aborted directions and, always, the riot of feeling



comprise a beauty of harmony? How to know that teal velvet







on pink tar is a painting, not the dream where I once



saw white velvet against black tar? How to know to avoid







penthouse windows because, once, I dreamed I possess



the whitest of wings? [insert caesura] Should I rise







from my writing chair to boil an egg so that I can return to



this poem with “the new mind” Dr. Williams recommends for







creating The Poem (I first typed, “Pow-em”)? Was it Rimbaud



who said the bears are dancing but what we had wanted







to do was to move the stars to pity? Still, Rimbaud had it



over me—I have moved only one thing (in self-conscious bathos)







and that thing is my belly to the chocolate cake whose siren



song within the refrigerator is drowning out my Muse, even though







it is Eros. Well, don’t sniff—cake was a good enough subject



for Wayne Thiebaud. [insert pause] It occurs to me: I know nothing







about Thiebaud’s sex life. But I can say about Renoir



that he loved the girls from Les Halles for letting







their breasts sing soprano above their bodices.



I can say that Cezanne painted still lives for







he feared naked women against whom,



he uttered, “One has to be on the defensive”!







Or that Seurat’s mistress who bore him a son



was unknown even to his most intimate friends







until after his death. I share her name proudly



with you: Madeleine Knobloch. For I would like







to be a poet’s secret mistress, but don’t tell that



to my husband because my beloved husband is not







a poet. This sidesteps the question of whether



a wife can be her husband’s secret mistress—







I would address this issue but my wrinkled brain



is screaming at the top of its metaphorical lungs: STOP







THIS POEM NOW! Perverse thing that I am—



otherwise I would not be a poet?—I continue:







Many men have informed me but only Degas



has showed me the great joy of glimpsing







a beautiful woman through an open doorway



taking a bath. Have you noticed how swiftly a sideway







glance transforms a subject in a way intent looking



would not have allowed? Is there a spectrum







to sight as there exists for light? Would the



position of crimson remain at the edge of vision?







I want to see as William Carlos Williams did



when he felt a dim garden, long neglected, by looking







at the crumbling bricks on a high wall. This is the same



man who once fell in love with the corpse







of a young negress—a “high yaller,” Dr. Williams



called her—lying stripped on the dissecting table.







I raise my head now to ask: have I mentioned yet



Ezra Pound? For I am not a modest enough poet,







you see, to write such a long long poem without



mentioning Pound. I shall say about Pound:







he used to pain the doctor by asking him to listen



to his poems. Dr. Williams recalls, Pound’s voice







would trail off in the final lines of his lyric



until the good doctor would explode: “Unless I







can hear the lines how can you expect me



to have an opinion of them. What do you think







I am, an apteryx?” Apteryx—great for Scrabble,



don’t you think? It is spelled, A-P-T-E-R-Y-X. Does







anyone here know what it means? I shall tell you—



I looked it up in THE AMERICAN HERITAGE







DICTIONARY which defines it as, “The kiwi.” Well,



no doubt that elucidates. By the way, it never fails,







does it?—this neat gimmick to insert a question



within the poem that, were I to read it out loud







to an audience, would allow me to form a sense



of intimacy not otherwise possible by me simply reading







and you simply listening? Are we feeling intimate yet?



Thus, shall we turn our attention back to sex?







The womanizing Gainsborough married a Duke’s daughter



for her money, not her beauty. Later, his youngest







daughter Margaret would die at the age of nineteen



from syphilis inherited from her father who often







signed off from his letters: “Yours up to the hilt.”



Where is it written that transcendence must be







difficult? How to behave like an angel when rapture,



as Lucifer knew, occurs through the fall? Heal me,







I plead with William Carlos Williams. The good doctor



responds with this tale: once, Ezra Pound played







the piano, letting fly with everything—Liszt, Chopin,



anyone you can name. But, the good doctor recalls,







“Everything resulted except music.” Why must there



be limitations to extreme emotions? Have you noticed







the pathos in that constraint? When I consider



pathos, I also think of John Ruskin who discovered







on his wedding night that, unlike marble statues,



women have pubic hair. To that discovery, he could







not rise to the occasion. Eric Gill, on the other hand,



considered the pubic hair a matter of philosophical







research—nevertheless, this is a pale tidbit compared



to Gill’s fascination with the sexual organs of animals,







such as peering through a microscope to compare



a cow’s semen to his own. Gill expanded the scope







of defining “voyeurism” as well as the issue of scale



often raised about the penis—and it occurs to me again







how hard it is to avoid that word “penis” which is



unfortunate since “penis” resonates as flaccidly







as “Ezra Pound” or “anus.” When I wish to soar from



the surface of words, I do not think of “Ezra Pound,”







“penis,” or “anus.” I think of azure, kimono, apricot,



adobe, Angkor Wat, magenta, anvil, silver moth…







How to taste black pepper exploding in the mouth



when today’s lunch is a sandwich of mashed potatoes







encased between two slices of white bread?



I taste pepper when I consider Toulouse-Lautrec’s







images of whores clad only in thigh-high black stockings.



My mouth explodes when I consider this dwarf painter’s







definition of paradise: a world of “female odours



and nerve-endings.” I have dreamt of Toulouse-







Lautrec dying in my arms, reeking from the alcohol



he drank to forget that he was “martyr(ed) to the Big S”—







once, Degas observed, Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings even



stunk of syphilis. Once, William Carlos Williams undressed







a big lump of a man in dirty overalls who had fallen twenty



feet while lugging stones in a red wheelbarrow. The nurses







shrieked when they cut away his bloody workclothes



to discover a woman’s silk chemise with little ribbons







at his nipples, that his chest and legs where shaved,



that he wore panties and silk stockings. What







determines how we define our secrets? How to



receive and protect secrets without being corroded







by aftermaths of conspiracies? Always, always:



how to discern with compassion? Now, there is no







smooth way to effect this transition as Picasso



enters this poem, nay, penetrates this poem







with the subtlety of a gored young bull. Apparently,



Picasso lost his virginity to a young girl who served







wine in a bar below his studio in Barcelona. Laughter



is a great aphrodisiac and she made him laugh.







Picasso backed her up against a barrel and, in his



own words, “made a man of himself.” Later, Picasso







would add upon noting her thin body and red hair,



it had been like “screwing my father.” The possible







implications of that statement are as obvious



as the tentacles of an octopus entering one of his







Blue nudes. In his “Blue Period,” most of Picasso’s



nudes depict women with their legs spread. What







does it mean if Picasso painted in blue because



syphilis forced him to abstain from sex? Who was







thinking: the man or the throbbing organ that must



remain stimulated and inflamed while enmeshed







in venereal disease? What exactly did Picasso spread



to Modigliani who believed making love to Picasso’s







former lovers would imbue him with some of the



Catalan’s genius? Certainly, I admire the Modigliani







nude’s admirable capacity to shock the viewer



with depictions of sexually satisfied women. Still, I confess







I am mostly charmed by the circumstances of the painter’s birth—



Modigliani was born in a bed piled high with golden







chalices; his father had just gone bankrupt and an ancient



Roman law prevented the bailiffs from taking anything







from the bed of a woman in labour. Have you noticed how



the world so often conspires to exacerbate certain







pathologies, such as postpartum depression?



How to concoct medicines that cure versus trade







one disease for another? How to live life



open to its cornucopia of experience without







the need for lies? Someday, I would like to



stroll through a street without seeing its dimensions







the way Eluard did: as a wound that will not close.



Heal me, once more I plead with William Carlos







Williams who replies, “All right! I shall tell you



of my own bout with syphilis! She was a German







Baroness considered to be a protégé of Duchamp.



Because she loved my poems, she offered her







Buffalo-like body with the advice, “Good doctor:



what you need for greatness is to contract







my syphilis and so free your mind for serious



Art!” Giggling, I reply to Dr. Williams, “Its (de)merit,







notwithstanding the approach, has much precedent.”



My reply may be the only moment of understatement







in this poem, and so worth noting, don’t you think?



With that question I realize, I am not a minimalist







despite wishing to write only silence for your



contemplation. How to know when a poem is finished







when perhaps all that I am writing about now



is simply this one and only matter: scale,







that common concern of paintings and penises?



Does Dali’s fixation on clearing latrines possess







sufficient “significance” to include? Oh, I sigh



at the prospect of transcending Dali’s beloved







word “anus.’ This must be more difficult than



writing the poem between repeating the word, “penis.”







How to insert more “cures”—words effecting



the sublime: Chive, Jacqueline, ash, bride, lang-







uor, stirrup, liqueur, Thai, filter, absinthe, wing,



rose—rose, rose, rose, rose. What becomes







of the dreamer who never leaves the dream?



At age eighteen, Diego Rivera ate a woman







for the first time. I am clarifying by calling



his act “cannibalism” versus “cunnilungus.”







Rivera discovered a French fur dealer who improved



the pelts of his cats by feeding them other cats.







Rivera wondered whether this strategy would benefit



humans. Was it an act of foretelling Frida Kahlo’s plight







when Rivera bought fresh corpses from the city morgue?



The artist discovered he liked both legs and breast,







though was partial, too, to breaded ribs and brains



vinaigrette—as long, he notes, raising a finger,







as they were harvested from young girls. I consider



the effect of war on a father’s face. How, I firmly believe,







a parent should never live longer than a child. How



a child should never witness—should never







witness—events which beg whether they should be



poeticized. How to listen to me share the joys of







pirouetting on the dance floor of the Milky Way



without considering me crazy or, worst, “just being







a poet?” I am whispering to you that when I look



down on this planet we share, the globe flattens itself







into a plane to maximize my vision of its teeming life,



the glory of unceasing chaos. If I do not shade my eyes,







I am rewarded by seeing intuitive grids rise



allowing me to begin singing: ambergris, ion, applejack,







celadon, Guadalupe, Cherie, polyglot, prima facie,



cocoon, lime, ruminate, tango, boilerplate, swish, beaux,







Ganymede, discombobulate, swain, ventricle, mop,



benzene, tamarind, myna, thermometer, willow, magnolia:







magnolia, magnolia, magnolia, magnolia…



We are ending a serious hour. Dr. William Carlos







Williams removes his stethoscope to proclaim, “Eileen,



any worth-his-salt physician knows that no one is ever







cured.” I suppose this means I must keep singing—Magnolia:



magnolia, tendril, grenadine, opus, maharani, MacDowell,







serendipity, tendril, licorice, hecatomb, calyx, glint,



periwinkle: periwinkle, periwinkle, periwinkle, periwinkle…
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