Jane Morris Poses For Rossetti's Proserpine - Poem by Alison Townsend
He wanted to paint me.
Though I was married to his best friend,
I felt his eyes follow me everywhere,
his gaze like a sable brush on my skin.
He undressed me, though it wasn't me
he wanted at first, but the way my body
arranged itself under my clothes, my bones
and muscles struts for the teal velvet
drapery he dressed me in. And my hair,
of course, that cloud of auburn
I let loose, coppery strands
floating around me like opium smoke.
I could tell right away he enjoyed
making me pose, his directions godlike
and stern, as he moved me about like a doll,
saying, Turn this way, now that. Look back
at me over your shoulder as if I were the last
person alive. Now lift the pomegranate
with one hand, but clasp your wrist
with the other. As if trying to stop yourself
from eating something forbidden.
As if you are offering it to me.
I must confess it bored me, standing
that way for hours, hand bent slightly back,
neck arched and aching. I did what he said,
lifting the fruit he'd slit with his penknife,
its skin pulled back like a scab to reveal
the wound's garnet-pebbled surface. It was even
my idea to press my mouth to the seeds, staining
it red, the tart juice puckering my lips
into that downward pout he loved
because it was sensual and sullen.
I stared back at him from beneath downcast
lashes as he painted, my eyes the color
of my robes, knowing he wanted me before he did,
desire before it's admitted an animal
that doesn't know it ought to run, every
moment ripe fruit about to be broken open.
I stood there before him for hours, tendrils
of ivy brushing my cheek. I stared
at him as he stared into me, pulling
out a sulky darkness I hadn't known
I owned, the brush rarely still on the canvas,
the scent of sweat and turpentine
and oil paint filling up the room.
I was so good at keeping still
you could hardly see me breathe
as the brush slicked across my skin.
I made time stop, the way it's supposed
to in art, that auburn hair I'd later
drag across his body merging
with the shadows of the other
world looming there behind me.
But though I may have seemed his prop
or plaything, some object he arranged,
like the sticky fruit bought fresh each day,
the footed brass dish, or the mirror
behind me, reflecting light from the world above,
we both knew he needed me. I was Prosperine,
the woman mythologized, a goddess on canvas,
flesh and blood frozen in time's chipped
gilt frame. He couldn't have painted
the picture without me, my eyes on his,
their teal green gone almost black
and taking him down, pulling him under
into the sensual muck, everything about
the underworld different than he'd expected.
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