The Ballad of the Model and her Painter
When she is twelve, her mother burns to death,
a moment’s inattention by the fire –
a muslin gown. For years, her one desire
is to see fire and not be short of breath,
her chest so tight she chokes, but does not die.
Her father gives her rooms where naked flame
is never seen, the dining room the same,
all of the heating hidden from the eye
ingenious pipes within the skirting board.
She hardly leaves the house. Suitors may call,
ask if they could persuade her to a ball.
She will not go, not even with a Lord,
for fear of burning. Winter is her time
when father buys her castles made of ice,
carved crudely, melted, then gone over twice
with chisel and with brush loaded with lime
that sears fake stonework, pointed traceries.
Wrapped in thick furs, she’ll sit upon a chair
receive her suitors. They all shiver there
burning with love and yet compelled to freeze.
She hardly eats; her spirit in her flesh
lies light as if she waits for Heaven’s call
is packed, with her valises in the hall,
yet stays, her father’s love a binding mesh.
She is so pale, her burning cough bleeds red.
Doctors are called to listen to her chest
with the new stethoscope. He buys the best,
her father, does not know, if she were dead,
how he’d continue. Takes her to the South
to heal her lungs, lands where the sky js blue
and has no clouds. Her suitors follow too
obsessed with eyes and hair and skin and mouth.
And even in fierce summer she is cold
though she coughs less, her skin is still as white,
she sometimes burns with fevers in the night.
A servant gives her tea made with the mould
that grows in black bread. And her cheeks grow red
not just from blushing. She can skip to town
her father following. He starts to frown.
She is a woman now; he knows she bled
This month and last month. She will leave him soon
and so he hires a painter that her face
will watch him still when she’s gone from this place.
She sits each day from breakfast time to noon.
The painter talks to her, does not just stare,
dumbstruck by beauty. Hears her sharp reply
and answers it. Reckons with brush and eye
the fine proportions of her face and hair
and puts them on the canvas stroke by stroke
and shade by shade. And every single line
his brush makes says ‘love, I will make you mine’.
He does not know how painting her awoke
these feelings in him. He is stricken dumb
but passes her a note, and names a day
when if she wants his love, they’ll run away.
He waits for her for hours. She does not come.
Her father’s servants break his deft right hand
with clogs and boots, tell him he’ll never paint
again. The artist lies there in a faint
and leaves town just as soon as he can stand.
She saves the canvas. It was almost done.
She’s locked into her rooms. Although from fear
she told papa, she wishes he were here
to paint and love. Perhaps they should have run
and not looked back. Her health now disappears,
she coughs again, is faint. Her father frets
nor understands that this is what he gets
from jealousy. The girl dies of her tears
in pools of coughed up blood, sputum and sighs.
Her father follows. Breaks into her rooms
and finds the canvas. Hangs it so it looms
over his bed, stares at it, weeps and dies.
The painter though survives. As does his art,;
he learns to paint again learns to take pains
work slowly with what little skill remains
in his distorted claw. Paints from the heart.
She lives forever. Generations burn
with passion at her picture; cold and dead
she has her suitors still. And it is said
she is the patron saint of those who yearn.