WOMAN WITH A POSTCARD
I stick the postcard to the fridge, writing-side down,
so the miniature version of Les Demoiselles D’Avignon
is visible. Each time I go for milk, the women
in the painting stare back at me with strident focus.
For years, Picasso called this painting my brothel
with affection. He observed his models for months,
confronting each angular cheekbone and sturdy muscle,
rendering each woman as colossal, nude, all hacked up
and somehow intact. They made eye contact as Picasso painted,
so even now, when you look at them, they don’t look away.
He plucked their unblinking eyes and reset them
in animal masks over bodies agape as windows—
above a head, a dismembered hand against red dirt.
Darker still, a fractured body, fused to a thrust of sky.
Arrested in brushstrokes, the disjointed women move
as if guided by unseen strings, like grotesque marionettes
poised before the point of collapse. These women
remind me of another version of myself, sleeping naked,
wholly open, as an ex-boyfriend sat at the foot of the bed
writing a poem about the parts of me he found most beautiful:
my sleep-hooded eyes when he woke me for sex, the cleft
at the center of my chest where he annexed his thumbs,
his hands sliding from breasts to spine
as if pulling apart the segments of an orange.
Picasso said his women had within them a savage magic
that thirsted to be captured and seen. I wanted to reveal
this magic in my flesh, to see what men could see
that I couldn’t—so when I left my old lover,
I kept his poem. But the woman he’d fashioned on the page
didn’t seem anything like me. Parts of her were close:
her stunted torso, the mole on the bottom of her foot,
her small mouth with its open smile. From this, I learned
a muse is only a woman cut to pieces.
* * *
Ruth Elizabeth Morris: “I became obsessed with this painting after a relationship ended with a college boyfriend who was also a poet. At the time, he was more accomplished in his craft than me, and everyone agreed that I should accept his opinions as expertise. When he wrote poems about our sexual experiences together and workshopped them with my teachers, I spent months walking around the campus feeling like my professors had seen me naked. If I expressed discomfort, I was reminded of the honor it was to be a muse, even if the woman I was on paper was only a body with male fingers that curled like a nautilus inside her. I kept quiet and tried to ignore it all. I like to reimagine his poem, sometimes, in a version where the woman on paper is more like the women Picasso painted: even in “his brothel” they look strong and sharp, and they don’t look away.”
Ruth Elizabeth Morris has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Marlyand, where she is a coordinator for Academic Programs. She was the first-prize winner of the 2015 Writer’s Digest Poetry Award. Her poems have appeared in The Seventh Wave, [PANK], and JMWW.
Pablo Picasso, Spain, 1881–1973Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
oil on canvas
244 x 234 cm
Museum of Modern Art
Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest
New York City