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By Lamplight

          —Harriet Backer, Ved lampelys (1890)

 

I thought, as I lay there, 
that if I was in my study
I might have four legs,
or a wooden top. After all,
philosophy is full of tables. After all,
Constance must marry. Give her a ring,
Mr Ring. Who is yet themselves at nineteen?

Seven years of life grow blank:
I did not recall that they had been at all,

          —a blue shadow on a blue wall.

And after four hundred years of darkness, light—
but I cannot view the table from all points at once.

It disappoints and annoys me:
the square of the window, the necessity
of moving, to capture most strangely some
other spirit, the shape of this intention,
what it is, and the maid with child.
But stay the course, Constance,
says auntie: No divorce. I am
the bourgeois aunt, the blue painter.
If I say she must, she must. Tables,
after all, are what philosophy is written on.
And tables are hard. And philosophy is hard.

You think love should be easy?
Charity would be easy,
if it weren’t for the poor,
who have no houses or grounds
of their own, only furniture.
Indeed, we lend money on houses
or grounds at great risk. Life is hard.

          .          .          .

Heathcliff is hard, I think,
as I lay against the table leg. Constance,
come to bed! Edward is hard. Lorck is hard.
Meier is hard. Please, come to bed!
The nights are long. Too long.
Bed, love. Kill the lamp. Let the stove
die. Meanwhile, men drown. We drown,
we men. We plan for the best or plan
for the worst. The bills pile up
till the ship goes down.
Women with no children first.

And I was a child, enclosed
between extension rails
of solid pine and solid birch.
As if I’d not encountered it before—
seeing it means not describing.
We see horizontal surface:

          Blue room,
          blue shadow.

Sins committed against the first
extendable table are not so much regarded
by the world, a world of cross rails,
leaves, and underframes,
as those against the second.
As I lay with head against
[clear acrylic lacquer],
eyes dimly discerning
the oak-panelled bed at home,
I pondered, and worried my eyes,
some great grief I could not recollect.
What it is cannot be apprehended.
I never see it as such, never see
it from all points at once.

          The shadow looms.
          It fills the room.

Listen, Constance, let’s be friends.
Give us a kiss and make sweet.
Or are you better than the seamstress?
Or are you even above judgments?
I had not known desire before the law.

Get away. As I lay
against the second table,
I have this alone against you.
Not only that you wrote the book,
but that your husband allowed you to publish it:
A love story in which love does not exist!
—as the table I write on, say, exists,
that is, I see and feel it and my heart aches.
If I were out of my study, I should say I existed.
I have loved you since nineteen, a child.
And who is themselves so young?
The table occupies a familial order.
What scene brings order to the words,
or holds the world together
any better than the seamstress?

          .          .          .

I dreamt my death,
my coffin and mourners.
Look how peaceful, they said.
A sleeping child.

I was a child,
Father just buried.
Misery arose from separation.
Between the drummer and the doctor,
I chose blank. We aren’t talking
about love, but why it exists
at all, and the blank space after.

After a night of weeping, I raised
my hand: it struck the table.

 

 

 

The Cardplayers

          —Harriet Backer, Kortspelare (1893)

 

This calm. Am I that old?
I see her all too clearly,
with no romantic distance.
But she looks cool, a tinge
of rather English remoteness.

When I was young, I thought
my life would be a book.
Isn’t it the greatest thing
on Earth to be a poet?
Alas, it’s not much use.

Your deal. His deal. His go.
He bluffs. He folds. He rests
his elbow. He bites his pipe.
Write with a dagger, with blood,
if you want to make a splash.

Get your ideas down at the piano.
You’ll need a little table alongside.
Obviously inspired by Huysmans
4 years too soon? May heaven
bring you ease, old gallant.

The table stops my gaze
with its ash veneer density.
And yet, seated before it,
when I think of a place, I’m there.
Let Christ deal with the money-lenders.

A spiritual marriage. Great idea!
Materialism treats men as objects,
like a table or chair or stone.
The weight of my hand
on the table isn’t me.

It becomes intolerable,
the utter vanity of life
divorced from faith. Goethe
should give up writing, or
else meet the fate of singers.

 

 

 

Homework Crosstalk

          —Harriet Backer, Lekseoverhøring (1888)

 

Yea, to the table of your memory,
Bring a pair of brothers with schoolbooks:
One of them lost in some kind of story
When the younger looks up from his gobbledygook.

The First Commandment, tsks the first:
Thou shall write thy own life.
Just see how far a dull knife gets ya
When you’re mensa mensae mensam mensa.

I’d rather see the revolution
Already distilling at the Grand Hotel.
It’s like Kant says somewhere in Pure Reason:
There’s nothing worth knowing outside ourselves.

Hence why Commandment Two:
Thou shall sever all roots.
Cool fruit don’t go crying to mum
When they’re mensae mensa mensa mensam.

The thing with things for Kant is appearance,
Which makes words work like a kind of girdle,
And makes decadence, like, the only dance,
A good decade before that poor turtle.

In the meantime, try the Third Commandment—
Again, how badly to treat one’s parents.
I know, grow up! Hashtag: sigh.
It’s just that mensa mensa mensam mensae.

Besides, their Fourth rule’s now pure Google:
Do no evil for less than a fiver.
If your fugue poem sounds more fungal than frugal,
It might just be your scrivener’s a skiver.

It’s the Fifth that seems more fitter for Twitter:
Thou shall hate all traditionalists, especially Franzen.
A bit of harmless hipster harum-scarum
For the mensa mensam mensae mensarum.

But do we study just to raise some bread
Or at the very yeast break unleavened?
I can’t recall a word I’ve read,
Except Commandments Six and Seven:

Thou shall not (6) wear fur,
Nor (7) cause a stir for publically funded art.
The smart ones carry a spare release
For mensarum mensas mensae mensis.

The gift is marriage. The gift is poison.
Either way, demand equality.
It’s not as if I speak Norwegian,
Or get off on mere technicalities…

Which brings me to my favourite Commandment:
Thou shall never repent.
A long time, never – like your PhD at SOAS
On the hegemony of mensis mensae mensae mensas.

Who knows what their last command meant,
But weren’t they clever to have less than ten?
Will it hurt if this pencil pierces my hand?
Why write thy own life in order to end it?

It’s easier to write about politics
Than to make a decent pair of shoes,
But you’ll get used to swapping sex for gender,
Or mensa for mensa for mensa for mensa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[JT Welsch lives in York, where he is lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at York St John University. His poems have appeared in 3AM, Blackbox Manifold (No. 6), Boston Review, Manchester Review, PN Review, VLAK, and four chapbooks, including, mostly recently, Appendix: Pruitt-Igoe.]


Copyright © 2014 by JT Welsch, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.