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Van Gogh’s Chair


ISSUE:  Summer 1998
Those who don’t believe in this sun
are real infidels! he wrote
to Theo. Yet, with Gauguin gone,
his own health failing, he turned
from the fields, the burning sun
of Aries to paint his rough yellow chair.
Sitting in my own yellow chair,
I wonder what lured him to paint
his? Perhaps he simply saw
how light and shadow made it
almost human, worthy of a portrait,
so that he dragged it to the center
of the room, arranged his pipe
and tobacco pouch on the cane-bottomed
seat—as if to say, This is mine
and began to sketch. Maybe, like me,
he’d learned the comfort of things
that can’t leave; how, surrounded
by familiar walls, a few paintings,
some books, it’s possible to pretend
you aren’t lonely, that all you have
to do is rise from your yellow chair,
cross the red tiles to the blue door,
and open it to the friends waiting there.

Marjorie Woodbury
 (1939—1993)

SLEEPING WITH NANNIE

Five, too old to sleep
in my parents’ room,
my bed and I move upstairs
to share my great-aunt’s
square, bright space.
I love the change. Fresh
from my bath, I climb up
on her big bed. She looks up
from her game of solitaire, smiles
and shuffles the cards back
into a deck. When she snaps
off the lamp, the hot sweet night
settles over us both. Lying by
the open window, we look
across the narrow stretch of yard
between houses, straight into the bedroom
across from Nannie’s. In it,
each evening, an old woman bathes
her even older mother. Wooley,
Nannie told me, their name was Wooley,
and the daughter hardly larger
than the mother. The older woman,
her thin white hair in a knot on her head,
has legs like sticks, she is withered
and brown, her breasts shriveled
bags. Patiently the daughter
bathes her, finally parting
her legs and washing between.
Sometimes I stay awake
until the bath is ended, and the daughter
sits by her mother’s bed and reads a chapter
from the Bible. She’s a good daughter,
Nannie says. Others, I fall asleep
during the bath and wake late in my bed,
sometimes with my hand between my legs

or touching the nipples on my flat chest.
There is something I almost know
about my body and my mother’s that I’m learning
from watching Miss Wooley bathe her mother,
but by morning I’ve forgotten. When I
look at their window, it’s just a dark square
in the bright sun, as if it were all a dream,
and no one really lived there at all.

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