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The Circus

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in Paris


ISSUE:  Summer 2013

I.

In the halls of Pigalle, juxtaposition is not intimacy.
Moulin Rouge Moulin Rouge Moulin
Red—Louise the Glutton spread high in her kick,

boneless Valentin a gray foreground shimmy.
The hedges of suitors stomp their feet, whistling,
as Henri pours into another lean of absinthe.

Later he’ll plot the scene in fatty crayon
before washing the limestone with gum arabic.
In lithography, beauty is born when attraction

and repulsion work together. He wearies the rut
to accept ink. He applies even, unyielding pressure,
until the poultice of paper cannot help

but stanch the wound. Black, yellow, blue.
He must match registers or one color outgrows
the other, the story blurring. His left thigh

fractured at thirteen. The right, at fourteen.
When cousin seduces cousin, the gods give them
a satyr son—full torso and a boy’s faltering legs,

a goat’s humor and a kid’s sex. He knifes
the brush’s edge for a silver spatter. He celebrates
lips painted in carmine, the perfect stink of an armpit.

In the halls of Pigalle he watches Jane hoist her knee
to the ceiling joists, her black glove a hummingbird
darting into her skirt’s bloom, and the bassist

chokes higher on the neck of his instrument.
For the camera, Henri wears Jane’s boa, her ostrich hat.
He will pose as Pierrot, as a gossamered choir boy,

as Muslim cleric, as Japanese princess with doll.
Why not? His gift: able to see every nature
beneath decoration. His curse: never able to change it.


II.

At the Cirque Fernando the ringmaster offers
his whip to the bareback rider, her dappled horse
galloping toward a squat clown with a paper circle.

The red of their lips kiss across the air. This
is the first painting of his they hung at the Rouge.
A canvas three times its height waited at the studio,

a promise he could not keep. His days ran dusk to dawn,
poster to poster to poster, and now he draws his pistol
to shoot spiders. Sores spread, gut corroded.

His mother herds him like an animal to the asylum
of Neuilly-sur-Seine. He bucks and brays at the cage
before realizing, like any animal, the hoop he must jump.

Chalk; charcoal; crayon. He circumscribes each page in
empty stands. Here there is no cheering bourgeoisie
guillotined by the paper’s edge. He admits no audience

to see the Jacob’s Ladder of the equestrienne’s spine
or the tamer, prostrate below a rearing stallion
whose ears lay back, his nostrils flared.

The performers eye each other. They flex and sweat.
He plays the sinews of muscle like a harp,
plucks harmony in palette: it is the same blue

that clothes the clown as the ribbon on the dog’s head,
same blue hide of the elephant who raises a tired leg
as he balances on pedestal and smokes a cigar.

For Arsène Alexandre—A souvenir of my captivity—
Thirty-nine times Henri returns to Montmartre’s rings.
Doctors gather, marveling at such perfect recollection.

Sanity is judged not by your story, but the telling of it.
He dreams of the embrace of Carborundum grit
that cleans the limestone, that lets us begin again.

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