The Legible Body: or Melancholia

Nadine Sabra Meyer Click to read more...

Nadine Meyer’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, Ploughshares and elsewhere and have won the New Letters Prize for Poetry and the Pushcart Prize. Her first collection of poems, The Anatomy Lesson (HarperCollins, 2006), won the National Poetry Series. She is an assistant professor at Gettysburg College.


It is 1842 and Napoleon has returned to Paris
as body-ash grey as the iron Seine,
Fuseli and Lavater have worked all winter painting
the soul’s character to flesh, each high forehead
a cathedral vaulted for the mind,
and in Italy Francesco Hayez paints this girl,
not so much a portrait as a study, the oval
of her face flattened and white as a cameo.
He paints her disheveled as the rumpled flowers
he places before her as if she, too, were perfumed
to lush disintegration, her bodice a waxy sheet
draped to falling, the lilies enveloped
in their private fluted mouths. He extends no grace
to her, but lets the light from one window
cut down the side of her face, her dress
pooling as if he can’t help himself, can’t stop
unlocking in his mind the pearly sheen
of each elasticized button, though she is sullen
and slouched as any preteen, awkward
in her new layers, and, in the muddied pools of her eyes,
he paints the whole of her psyche in concentric rings,
at once over-taxed as her mother and extravagantly
swollen, a child in the mane of her disillusionment.
Even the cross he gilds mid-fall, but she doesn’t catch it,
doesn’t rearrange herself like a girl at the pool
tugging up her suit, no, her hands
are stiff in her dress, listless to deformity.
Her face is like one who will take a beating
without flinching, and isn’t that what this is,
as she stands for him who cowers behind the screen
of his canvas, he who props her up
before the blank brick and tugs the dress
from alignment, convincing himself he’s caught her
in her undressed mind, this girl for whom
martyrdom means holding very still
that he can make of her madness and sex?
In another century, a poet thinks himself
the wind God and she the harp he’ll run the string
of his breath through like bell-song, and like Chloris
she lies for him, a burnished shell, her cones
filling with his notes, though before long
his flora clots in her throat, blood-flakes fern
from her lips, and her own sound is stopped, guttural
in her long white throat. What a familiar myth
they enacted before the stone and ivy wall of Cambridge,
1956, his arm yoking her as it would for seven years,
her girlish smile, light trolling the shadows. Here solidity
is defined by her vanishing, the aural white;
he grows larger as she less palpable. Must there always be
a vanishing twin in this unnatural partnership,
or else the two-headed monster they became when she spoke,
anger ticking in her throat? Hayez called his portrait Melancholia
as though he knew her, knew what darkened her pupils
to crushed pencil points was desire for annihilation, but it was he
who wanted to see her ripe for the taking, as if there were nothing
more to do with her but lift the seashell-blue
of her dress and punish her as she asks to be punished.

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