The year they opened the Guggenheim
my father painted a portrait of me
propped in a chair, all cylinders and spheres,
so solid it looked as though my baby fists
could unscrew from my arms. This was my first
in non-objectivity. When Wright first traced
ascending spirals on onionskin, a white bowl
of horizontals, this is what he meant.
Modernism was elimination of ornament.
Built by negation, the curved surface
of the future could rise clean of the past.
Two aphorisms: 'Style is History' and 'Fashion
Knows No Pain.' On a morning just before
the turn of the century a woman got up
and put on the last bustle for the last time.
And somewhere, it must have been on some
where nothing ever was wasted, the last crinoline
rounded the corner of a barn.
The hoop skirts and boned bodices that fit
closer than upholstery, the shawls
woven so finely they could be drawn
through a wedding ring, the linen shirts
unpicked and turned to hide the wear,
all of them went eventually to beggars,
rags and paper. A strand of silk is stronger
than its equivalent in steel. It's sad,
the durability of fabric, the way it outlasts fashion.
It's sad what survives. But, however slow the decline,
the wasp-waist, hobble-skirt, the sway-back
each had its last time, like a last word,
a last breath. As everyone dies, instantly.
Better to wear the throwaway paper dresses
my mother shortened with scissors in the Sixties,
disposable. In the planned obsolescence
of my childhood I spent so many nights
in the attic of my grandmother's house, too hot
to sleep, not letting the sheet touch my legs.
I'd get up and open the glass jar of buttons,
the red leather wallet of needles and thread.
I'd take out my great-aunt's mourning dress,
the sleeves stuffed with tissue paper,
from its place in the cedar chest. My mother
said 'Black is always in fashion.'
To dream of scissors means separation.
They come together to divide. Think of the victims,
the bodies identified only by their clothes.
Before I put anything on, I cut out the labels.
When they shoulder my coffin they'll find it
light. When I was still a girl, I tried on my mother's
cinch-belted wedding dress, with its starched
and cantilevered skirt, and her stiletto heels. I know
they fit me exactly, so nothing will be wasted.
II. Burning as Communication
Neglected, the dead get angry, which is the reason
for these eggs and red buns, these pyramids
of oranges and Kit-Kat bars arranged in even
according to the principle of yang. Tin Hau
Temple, Shanghai Street, smells of sandalwood.
Coils of pressed incense unroll from the ceiling
like skeletal bells six feet across.
Everything has a soul. The sixty gods
along the wall take only the spirit-of-oranges,
so the temple attendants peel bodies-of-oranges
and eat. This is the first of the Four Noble Truths:
I buy presents for my mother
at the sacrifice shop on Reclamation Street,
paper dresses trimmed with foil,
no metal buttons to weigh them to the ground,
shoes of neat origami, a tissue winter coat,
infinitely light. Five Hong Kong dollars
buys a two-inch stack of spirit-money, millions
in currency, a savings passbook and a charge card
from the Bank of Hell with a place on the back
for her signature. I buy ingots of silver foil,
only good to the dead, who never have enough,
no matter how much is given them by burning.
There is always a funeral in the family.
The dead are all the same.
They have a limited range of expression.
They leave their footprints in ash
on the floor. They can't say thank you.
They have sheets of gold leaf in their mouths
to cover their obligations. Even in hell
the debts accumulate. For every life given
by heaven, the earth provides a grave. The body
is ceremonial when empty, exaggerated sleeves
sewn shut at the cuff, no buttons, no pins.
The head rests on a pillow stuffed with temple ash.
The soul is led from it by a light set to drift
on the river, a moon-shaped paper lantern,
its flame doubled on the surface of the water.
In the funeral procession
the soul is a vertical banner, or a tablet
in a paper sedan chair, carried tenderly as a
Always a child walks before it, throwing paper
on the ground to distract the hungry ghosts,
the Dead-by-Accident, whose throats are narrower
than a needle's eye, so nothing can satisfy them.
It is only when I remember you are dead
that I realize this narrow light-filled gallery
in the East 60s where we sit and eat
a lunch of crustless paté sandwiches
is Heaven. You say the prices are too high.
On the walls Matisse's cut girls come apart
in their white-atmosphere. The air is like
New York, sky made of zinc, lucid, purified,
no accident. It smells of paste and ink.
The girls are cramped to fit the page,
necks bent, legs twisted, blue gouache
severed at the wrist. Heaven is a city
cut from flat color. Heaven is a single tone
in space, its shape defined by absence.
IV. Self-Portrait as Odalisque
I am in the world because the pull of the ground
exactly balances the pull of the air.
On the thin surface of Matisse's oils,
women lean out of windows, their dresses
thrown over the backs of chairs,
rich fabrics, the details magnified
to hide the walls. This shade of blue
necessitates a jar of goldfish
or Nature morte aux oranges
just as a curve must have a straight edge
to establish it. A line alone
suggests no volume.
There must be a man
in a suit, impassive, undisconcerted by the way
I recline, beached nymph, an experiment
in luxury. My blouse's white interior is lit
like a lamp. Veiled and Turkish, I imitate
abstraction, my eyes a modified arabesque.
A cipher. I continue the pattern of the ground
behind me. I carry myself this way because I hold
the image of perfection in my head
like a bowl of clear water. Naked,
I'd concentrate the light like a lens,
I'd burn a hole in the room. What makes this art
is control and intention, the shape of the man
thrown like a shadow from me, clothes laid on
with the flat of a knife. I am of no use
to the dead unless restored to the air
by burning. Look at my legs, already
spread with red silk that licks like flame.