Live with an artist long enough, and he’s likely to find his way into your writing.
In my case, the artist in question is the Post-Impressionist Henri Matisse. The writing in question is a poem I titled “Portrait by Matisse.”
Although Matisse died in 1954, two years after I was born, he took up residence with me sometime after I left home for college. I no longer remember the date I first saw an exhibition of Matisse’s Cut-Outs, his marvelous paper-cut collages, and original editions of several of his artist books, especially Jazz, whose poetic texts he illustrated with undeniable joy, but from that moment, Matisse and I lived together, the one muse to the other.
Matisse, I have read, began his day not by picking up his brush and paints but by reading poets — the likes of Charles d’Orleans, Pierre de Ronsard, André Rouveyre, Stéphane Mallarmé. (Mallarmé’s were the first poems that Matisse ventured to illustrate.) Poems, he claimed, kept him young.
For years, I began my day waking to a cut-out, Blue Nude III, which Matisse created in spring 1952. Not (sadly) the original but a high-quality reproduction that I had mounted on equally high-quality poster board and always hung in the space where I wrote at an antique refectory table I still own — in those days the same space I slept.
What made, still makes, Matisse so special to me?
Brilliant color, like that blue in Blue Nude, a blue deep enough to get lost in, to dare to dream to, exactly the shade of the Mediterranean Sea I glimpsed while making my way along the Cote d’Azur for the first time in the early 1980s.
Simplicity of line, graceful and sinuous and sensuous, a dance of fluid movement.
Clarity of shape, enough to take in the image yet allow the eye and imagination to wander outside the lines.
Playfulness and the sound of laughter, because Matisse discovered while bed-ridden how to make art the way children do, using scissors and paper, stencils and glue.
Color, line, shape, form: These are not just elements of visual art. They are also components of poems, some of which we can ski across.
Some time in the mid-1980s, I took up pen and paper and, looking at Blue Nude, hit upon the idea to write a series of poems about artists and loss and all the ways we say goodbye.
I found Isadora Duncan in my dance books, Chopin among the sheet music on my piano, Neruda in my Spanish texts, Matisse in a growing stack of art books and still hanging prominently, always right in front of me.
Portrait by Matisse
Yours is a music
of morning sunlight:
a shaft of wheat,
also the mood of a paling moon,
the blue of the town madam on Christmas Eve.
You, poet of crayons and cutouts and glue,
dance me through October dew:
color it champagne
lighter than swallows in flight,
your thought the rest.
I slip onto your easel dressed in the scarlets
of mad words and love’s open sores.
Even when you set me against a background
not exactly white, men smile at me,
the laughter in your hands contagious after all.
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro