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Sample Poems by Grace Bauer

Artemisia Paints the Blood on Judith’s Hands

after Artemisia Gentileschi

It’s no easy business to paint
a beheading. The muscles in her arms—
they took me days to get right,
to reveal the toughness
of the woman and the task
at hand, articulate the history
written in her face with nearly
imperceptible shadow.

What I wanted was the moment,
the woman captured
in the gesture of freeing
her people, herself, the horror
of what sometimes must be
accomplished, of crimson
disrupting white. I wanted

no rest for the eye
of the viewer, as I had no rest—
obsessed as my subject
with finding a language
for anger that renders
the word mute as Holofernes
the moment after the moment
he recognized death in his own voice.
Silence is a sword
that takes him away
from himself—I sketched it
in her hand like a brush,

labored till my models
nearly wept from exhaustion,
till Rome began to whisper
its nightly melody, and the moon
rose beyond my window, silver
as a coin. Only then could I turn
from the heroine on my easel
to slice myself a bit
 of cheese and bread, eating
with the paint still caked
on my fingers, thick and pungent.

In the few hours of dreams
she allows me, I watch
Judith trek the plains
triumphant towards home.
She cradles her terrible trophy
like a child who needs less
than this sleep
she has laid him down for.

Her faithful maid
beside her still trembles
in the afterglow of victory.
Every twig that snaps
beneath their feet could be
his bones breaking, every sigh
of wind a breath his mouth
still gasps for in her arms.

But neither claims regret,
understanding the necessity
of pretense, of using beauty
as a weapon when one must.
They wonder only if they could
have done it quicker, if the line
across his throat might have been more
artfully drawn, or if his heart
might have been a better souvenir
to bear back as testament
of what a woman can do if she must.

But that, my friend, is out
of this painting, which has already
grown larger, more gruesome than I
had pictured it in my mind.
Take her without flinching.
Frame her simply. Promise me
you will hang her in flattering light.

Signora Gioconda Tires of Sitting for the Master

Once, after dinner, my husband
was speaking—of business,
some prediction of weather—I forget—
I was lost in a thought of my own—
but I recall his anger,
how it flared when he saw me
not quite there. He struck me then
and cursed my stupid grin,
yet now he squanders gold to have you
make a likeness of it. Oh, he cares
little for art or me, but he knows
of your renown and desires to possess
a token of it—a well-wrought
adornment to grace his empty wall.

He will approve of the way you have
composed me—the demurely folded
arms, barely visible veils,
the muted tones of my garments—
which will go well with his favorite chair.
The size he’ll find convenient,
easy to hang in that perfect niche
where his friends will notice and admire—
will it be me or you?

But the expression you have given me,
I fear that may annoy him. He’ll wish
I looked more dignified, closer to his
image of the proper noble’s wife.
He’ll imagine it’s another
of my daydreams that lies behind
the distance in my eyes.
I tell you this to ease the hesitation
that I see in yours, the trembling
in your fingers I noticed when you rearranged
my hair. I think you, too, feel this
portrait may be more that mere commission.

If my husband asks, I will tell him
of the minstrels you employed to entertain
and keep me still, of the pretty boys
who mill about the studio, eager
to satisfy your whims, of the smell
of turpentine and oil that permeates
the rooms, the light that streams through
each window, as if you had drawn it there.
He will never question these stories,
though he will never understand
how little they explain.

He may be astute enough to recognize
that something has been captured here,
but he will never name exactly what it is.
He’ll call it—cunning, mystery, bemusement—
let him call it what he will.
His soul, I think, could use a bit of wonder.

So forget about your patron, your boys,
the whole damned world. The peaks
you’ve sketched in the distance may
exist where love will take us.
Pour some wine, dear Leonardo.
Admit this work is good. Come and lie down
with the legend you have made.

Portraits of the Rich

One can hardly believe their bearing—
posture so regal, one wants to call it
carriage, though motion is rarely implied.
Their faces, composed to inspire
admiration, refuse to give much away.
No museum is complete without a few.

If they are men, their sternness represents
itself as virtue. They stand poised
with a hand hitched in a vest pocket
or finger a shimmering watch fob
to remind us of the value of their time.
Sometimes they sit behind an expanse
of desk, accouterments of their industry
displayed against dark backgrounds.

If women, they are most often dressed
in white. If not white, then blue.
Their pale throats adorned with fine gold chains,
delicate lace framing the hands that lie
clasped in their decorous laps.
On occasion, they demure behind a fan.
One can barely imagine them unclothed
or caught in the act of disrobing.

Such exposure is reserved for the poor
wenches who were paid to serve as models
for the Masters, and who now gaze openly
at us, and those who deemed themselves their betters,
from much better paintings, hung here
on the gallery’s equal but opposing walls.

Large Bathers

after Cezanne

Only one figure actually appears
to be in the water. The rest lounge
on the banks, the curved lines of their limbs
sketched against what blue it takes
to make the eye see air,
just enough gold ocher to dust
their skin the warmth of summer.

The women are, for the most part, faceless.
Their features crudely drawn, bodies
painted the color of sand—if they are
painted at all. Sometimes untouched
canvas is left to represent bare flesh.
dead-center on the far shore
stands a man washed the color of wheat, fully clothed
beside his wheat-washed pony.

His face, too, is a gap, an absence
of detail we read as visage and longing,
since he, like us, is the voyeur
in this scene, the eye
for whom these bathers are composed.

The village in the distance is hardly more
than a dream, despite the solid cerulean
of its roofs and spire suggesting
civility and containment, which is what
we come to this painting to step out of
for a moment. We enter this idyll to forget
a world that makes us so self-conscious
of our naked selves, we fear
a sight like this might strike us blind.

Mrs. Eakins’ Final Touches

after Susan Macdowell Eakins

First your student, then your wife, then your model.
In becoming these I slowly had
to unbecome myself. I was transformed
into another of your finely-rendered subjects,
a life-like figure you’d composed in enigmatic light.

Oh, I know you loved me deeply and bragged
to others often that your Susie had an eye
for color finer than your own, but you had a way
of needing that, too often, overwhelmed me.
I defended you from all those fools
who thought your work too bold.

I do miss you, Tom. Your passion, wit. The wild determination
that you brought to life and art—but I must admit this solitude
your sudden passing left me in some days feels like luxury.
The joy of work’s a pleasure I denied myself too long.

What I love best, ironically, is painting images of you.
Your face. Your hands. Your body. Which I resurrect
upon my easel now. It took me years but, dear,
I think I’ve finally captured your true likeness.

Life-like. Silent. Staring from the shadows
that I paint you in. Thomas, my love,
you taught me. But not everything I know.