My grandfather was a butcher. In death, my mother took on the color and countenance of meat. One week earlier I’d studied these paintings, trying to decipher screams from the kill on its hooks. I did not want to look is why I looked. Then I wished I’d turned away.
Around him bones are scattered in a railing. Staircases run through the sections of meat. If the room lifted into light, her bed was a sunken confluence of red. The way her face contained its own absence. And still I could not understand how a man could disappear into his umbrella, become nothing inside his own clothes.
Distorted, of themselves and other, I wrote. Humans absolved into clay. As now her face appears in the painting: distorted of themselves, distorted other— While behind her, letters overwritten: an unseen language, muttering.
Like advisors, like parents, these two halves of animal. Seen next to the dusk hollowing out the room, the painting wears the hue of a flower, of a darkening bruise. His face dissolving, the meat looming open to swallow him, the mouth of each hip split wide and gleaming…
Nested together, two figures cottoned in light. When we are dead, memories appear this way. In the mirror, I saw my mother’s frame, her father’s before it. And I had written: You cannot tell where one figure ends and the other begins.
A room disappearing into itself. Out of such blackness a box appears, and from inside a man wavers, ghost-lined in chalk. He cringes, for the box is also a railing barbed with figures perched atop a curved line like the side of a grand piano. The box, the figures, piano, all gold, transparent as if imagined, as if the blackness of the room were all that was real.
And underneath where the dark had peeled away, raw strips of light, flesh beneath flesh. And her face was not her face, though her body was all her body… And the black straps of air, shredded, hardened into tendons— And the day was not the day, but something the mind brands on the mind… Something in the mouth and clenched eyes tells how this light enters the brain. Something in the face tells how the tendons find the bone. They find it, and they pull—
Having never returned to that room, having never again entered that museum, having only words to go back to what was true— But words distort, memories change, paint beneath paint, paint covered and mired in paint. And now what never existed wears a name and a halo of frames. Held to the wall, as to any barrier, with a nail.
Jeremy Bass’s poems and reviews have appeared in The Nation, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, New England Review, Kenyon Review Online, and other journals. He has been awarded scholarships and prizes to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Summer Literary Seminars and the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prizes.