And two more new poems.
By Melita Schaum.
I KNEW my husband’s life before I knew him.
A book left on the windowsill, the way the light fell on the chair in his reading corner, the color of his bowls, his shoes under the bed worn just so along the heel.
I was subletting his house in California for six weeks, introduced by a mutual friend. He was traveling in Greece and sent me emails from Santorini, Athens, Crete, fanning the first flush of attraction between us.
Arrived in Crete this morning. Minoans an amazing culture. Women-led. Boys and girls, athletes and acrobats, dancing on the backs of bulls. Very evolved.
What a sweet man, I thought, how oblivious to the fact that those boys and girls were slaves, forced to entertain—in the arena catapulting over horns, later in the beds of the wealthy. The picture he painted of them was too dear to shatter: a fresco of happy dancers, beautiful and young. History frozen in the way we’d like it to have been.
A YEAR into our love, we rented a bleak loft across from a bar on a small-town Midwestern main street that was empty by nightfall. It was in an old warehouse that had been converted to studio residences, high-ceilinged and cold, a kitchen stitched into a corner like an afterthought, our bed exiled to a windowless chamber. But the studio where he would paint was perfect. Tall, north-facing windows diffused the light; walls of whitewashed brick awaited his canvases; old hardwood floors squealed joyfully as he set up his easel and paints.
He wanted still lives, and I had the job of assembling his tableaux, foraging at the farmers market for produce, gourds, old glassware, plates and flora. My compositions were haphazard but he loved them all, changed nothing. Fruit flush with juice, bulbous with late summer, their sweetness drawing bees in through the open windows. He’d paint quickly, before they spoiled.
Later, as we made love, I’d smell the paint in his hair, the heady acrid perfume of ripe fruit and solvent. Our love was a table filled with pleasures, shadowless.
MY HUSBAND captured me in so many paintings, yet I have few images of him. How did I let him slip away?
Two portraits stay with me. The first, painted shortly after we married, shows me sitting at our kitchen table, a bowl of fruit before me, my arm resting easily on the tablecloth, my gaze directed toward a window beyond the frame. Light from it falls on my face. My thoughts are clearly peaceful, resting on some glad horizon. The glint of the ring on my finger centers that picture’s world, drawing everything into its golden orbit.
In the second portrait, ten years later, I am also at a table. At my elbow is an empty crystal bowl and a half full glass. My arms are crossed over my chest this time, and my look is inward. It’s a study in transparency—the bowl, the glass, the water, my gaze ghostly and fragile. Even my figure is hazy, seen through fog or ice, as if I’m disappearing even as he races to catch me in brushstrokes.
But it’s not me who is vanishing.
We had just had his diagnosis, an illness that would take his life, but not before taking everything else he had: his memory, his words, his hands, his body, his mind.
We think of a still life as a tableau of abundance. We forget that the ripeness it captures is a turning, a vanitas, a last suspended moment before decay.
I DON’T know what this writing is. A prayer, a reminiscence, a gift, a sketch, an absence, an incantation, the alchemy of remembering.
In my dreams he’s still alive, beside me, just out of my vision but there, loved, present, a canvas I can nearly touch, a composition of glances and whispers and skin and desire that almost, almost comes together, before it is washed away by morning light.
If there is heaven, let it be a blue jewel of water, a drop hanging, reflecting a miniature convex world.
It looks like ours.
It is not ours.
It is ours mirrored back to us—perfected, reversed, uncoupled from time.
If all else fades, let there at least be something eternal in the message of a man beginning to love a woman, and in the pleased, shy, careful words of her response.
In the bull dancers, young Minoans long dead, but in his words, her writing, their desire, forever lithe, forever fair.
Part turtle, part rabbit,
rat-tailed piglet, possum-on-a-half-shell—
yesterday we watched
the armadillo on the autumn lawn
What was it doing
this far north, tilling for treasure
in the damp, red Georgia earth?
Shuffling on three-toed lizard feet,
flashing a silver-furred vest and breeches:
softest down under
an ancient terrapin shell.
I woke again
without the fertile hill
of your shoulder under my hand,
without the rich earth,
the musk of you.
Where are you?
the trees are on fire.
coyotes keen like sirens
as if to resurrect their kill,
hysterical as drunks,
of their souls.
I sang that coyote song
the night you died.
But there was no coda.
Just bones and earth.
Earth is a plot—a grave,
a conspiracy, a narrative
I can make no sense of.
I took your ashes to the sea;
the tide left with them.
They whitened the rocks
at our waterfall in the canyon.
I scattered them on the playa;
the high desert wind
lifted and danced with them,
skirled and vanished.
Writing, rooting, grubbing,
pen in hand—
I am a bizarre creature
made up of crazy,
armor and tenderness.
Mining this mud
I unearth every jewel but you—
Where are you?
Everywhere and nowhere.
I dig and dig
and watch October light
jaundice and flush the woods
into ruby, amber, agate, gold.
take and make
me your gift
this hard grace
meant me to be.
MELITA SCHAUM is author of five books: two on the poet Wallace Stevens, two on women’s issues, and a collection of memoir essays, A Sinner of Memory. Her poetry, short fiction and literary essays have appeared in numerous journals, and three of her essays have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. She received her MFA. in Creative Writing from Stanford in 1980 and was professor of modern literature and creative writing at the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1984 to 2014. She lives in Berkeley, California.