David Swartz "RELIGION WITH AN EDGE"
biblicalfictions.com
Poetry for the Curious across the Religious Spectrum
BALTHUS

 

 

 STUDIES FROM BALTHUS

 

{Girl in Green and Red}

                                     Balthus

 

                                                   

for Shirley Ellis

 

 

  

i          ALICE          1933

 

 

Alice combs her flaxen hair

As if in corporeal shade, left

Foot raised to a wicker chair.

We center at her cleft.

 

There is obscenity in this.

Eyes avert from beauty

That contemporary duty

Would urge us covet, kiss.

 

There is that of Penthouse

In this early painting.

The left breast swells down, out,

Toward some adolescent fainting.

 

We imagine youth, afraid,

Stuttering to observe, touch.

The eyes themselves, that much

No longer young, are not to be betrayed.

 

Even the curiously human

Heeled slipper planted on the plank

Floor is a touch uncommon,

Like each poised hand,

 

Or the navel's impression

In the scant garment,

Forcing our gaze again

To her sex and our torment.

 

And yet it's all proportion,

From wall to figure, chair.

There is nothing random there

From faith to distortion.

 

Beneath the garment our dishonor—

Half guilt, half amazed,

We eat this rank Madonna

With our trembling gaze.

 

And yet the maid escapes.

As if from behind glass,

Our halting vision scrapes,

Contained, impotent, crass.

 

Balthus would give us

Perfection in a nymph's cut,

Unexpected, a virgin slut.

We sense she will outlive us.

 

And art is such.  Its focus

Redeems the common glance,

Transcends the corporeal dance

Of light itself, flesh feel, locus.

 

Alice will comb her flaxen hair

For 20 billion years.

Her graceful slipper fears

No glance from thigh to chair,

 

No fix, no cerebration.

She combs while model leaches

Into age.  NO age reaches

Eternal Alice and our celebration.

 

 

ii          CATHY DRESSING          1933

 

 

A startling nudity erupts

From this blond figure, breasts

In horizontal cones.  Each alone attests

To a young girl's dynamic.  Nothing disrupts

 

The naked fact, imperious,

Even the contemplative male, oblivious,

Or the coarseness grooming

Cathy's hair, an aging female combing

 

Youth itself, its insolence, a bright

Blond body warmed by light

From some unstated source,

Perhaps our eyes, remorse

 

That we as age or somewhere

Poised at age, subserve only the geometrics

Of our life, a chill obstetrics.

Carnality is in her stare,

 

Her nipples, belly, cleft,

The long pale tactile limbs.

A sense in her, bereft

Of mind, inward to inward climbs,

 

Such knowledge as is youth,

That glaring dance in all its flesh

And furtive fire.  No insolence

Can ever probe its truth.

 

No insolence can taste her sublime

Skin, for we are caught in observation.

Her partners in the crime

Mirror our isolation.

 

NOR prey upon her breasts

Nor thrust her back to taste

Of death.  There is no haste

To her design or what design attests.

 

Such symmetry ignores our bent.

Nipples alone would ravish mortal wisdom.

No mortal, can she sense our sad lament,

Our prying eyes, our delectation?

 

Eyes fix along a captive order

Our painter has imposed, a slant

Of arm and knee, the border

Of Cathy's flesh, the maiden aunt?

 

It is sufficient to engage the wonder

That, on such riot as blond Nature gives,

There is still calm around her,

Bred of the tensions that she lives

 

And those who live apart,

Captive in their sullen cages.

They cannot sense her lovely heart,

Imperative of what her youth engages.

 

Balthus is God for this small hour,

Immortal by a subtler rage,

That, fixing Cathy in an antique power,

Restores an era to our sullen AGE.

 

 

iii          THERESA          1938

 

 

Theresa, photographic, sloe eyes,

The light is hardly fair to us,

Who only sense its graceful touch

Tactile on your thighs.

 

You are alone.  An old-fashioned chair

Fondles that serene dignity

That none of us can share,

Even sharing your sanctity

 

Upon that common throne—

It is incumbent upon the witness

To burn, stroke, kiss,

If not your flesh, its perfect tone.

 

Brown hair gathered back

Against green velvet where the head

Rests.  The face looms from near black

As if to mask the notion, read

 

In sense, that you are simply virgin

Willing us recant.

We cannot know the urging

You would will nor yet repent.

 

Theresa, your rich red jacket gleams

Like blood.  Even the creases

Pulse.  We are simply our diseases,

Leeching your youthful dreams.

 

And yet you're pure, free

Of our glance, our envious stare.

We cannot even hope to stroke your hair.

Our eyes are blinded just to see.

 

The hands are noble in their poise

Against the chair, a knee.

They are slender in their lovely

Press, quiet against our noise,

 

Our silence, our surrender.

A shadowed crimson sleeve

Would call your Balthus grieve

That painting couldn't end there.

 

Such is that master's vision,

That all he touches lives

In contemplation.  Even OUR turmoil gives

His subjects quiet decision,

 

A force of naked innocence,

A clarity of feel and calm.

They breathe but must move on.

The painting fears what they commence,

 

A loss for us who stop to stare

At life for all who once have been.

Theresa, undying, knows no sin

Beyond the eyes that touch her hair.

 

She knows no age, no tears.

The inward eyes are vast

And pure.  They taste no years

Ahead, no loss, NO age, no past.

 

 

iv          THE WHITE SKIRT          1937

 

 

This model, nameless, drapes

Again, against a chair,

All but the wavelets in her hair—

Solitary, willing the time elapse.

 

There is no time in her dynamic.

Poised against her gathered self,

The drapery folds, a static

Pulse, radiating maidenhood and health,

 

Even sexuality in that untouched repose,

The lilt of her breasts, her clothes,

The patterned slippers, a comely rust

Giving the lie to death and dust.

 

She too's alone, even with our eyes

Feeling her.  Senses the master's brush,

His awe, determination, hush,

That gathers silk against her thighs.

 

BUT the breasts—is she Cathy?

They mold the scant brassiere

As if they have no time to fear

Life's ravage on the path he

 

Takes, Balthus with his vision.

They are poised there in the open blouse

As if to counterpoint derision,

What feral provocation they expose,

 

OUR lust, our anguish at the sight,

That no amount of wishing makes it right.

We shall not know this maiden

With the inward glance nor know our aching.

 

An arc of russet drape casts

Rich lace at her form, a weave

In gold that seems to gather her sleeve,

Her arms, a nape of neck, her breasts.

 

And yet she glows from self alone.

No silence can bear the bosom's

Quiet chant, relentless, fearsome,

A quietude of pulse and moan,

 

Our inward aching to observe

And still not touch no matter.

Even our eyes can't probe the latter,

The loveliness it wills to serve.

 

White skirt and blouse, blond skin

And hair, a play of light upon the folds

That Nature granted, free of sin

Or sin's impotence—such presence molds

 

The artist to itself, calling his skill

To render more than in his power.

There is a time which knows no hour.

This model KNOWS that looks can kill.

 

Balthus has left you there for us.

You slice our hearts with drape of form,

A grace of blond no will can touch,

Nor cold desire nor even warm.

 

 

v          THERESA DREAMING          1938

 

 

Arms clasped and wide

To cradle the profiled head—

It seems she is asleep, bride

Of contemplation, said, unsaid.

 

Theresa dreams, or so the artist

Would have us think.

Even her pale torso thrust

Against the light must drink

 

OUR thought, captive to a moment.

A strip of white conceals her sex,

So pure it dazzles our lament

That such as she must scorn our tricks.

 

Such determination in the flared

Nostrils, the drawn upper lip!

She wills herself to dreams unshared

By such as feel a carnal grip.

 

And yet she is woman in the making.

We sense an untouched promise

Poised at the senses' aching.

There is fear in this.

 

Theresa will know her swan.

There is Leda in her innocence,

A halting urge that might commence

If urging forced her on.

 

Yet thus far, she is unspoiled.

Eyes lick the strand of garment

At her parted legs, in torment.

Eyes kneel, embryonic, coiled.

 

The blood-red skirt is raised

For our poor delectation of her limbs,

Bathed in a purer light than limns

OUR minds.  Balthus, it seems, is crazed

 

By beauty, etching it even

In the scarlet slippers.

The geometric tangle grips her

Inward search in uncommon

 

Angles.  Eye follows elbow, wrist,

To inward vision, vase, the knee,

The chair, even the cat.  ITS poetry,

Licking an innocent dish, insists

 

A kindness of its own, as if

A Buddha had by inward grace

Fashioned its catlike face,

Crouched, licking a WHITER dish.

 

The pastel blouse reveals no breasts.

The raised arms flatten

What might otherwise arrest.

Such simple garment shames poor satin,

 

Perhaps by the texture of each fold,

The light.  No garment would erase

Her calm intention, burn, no trace.

Theresa will warm when we grow cold.

 

 

vi          SLEEPING GIRL          1943

 

 

This nameless child is bathed in sleep,

And yet we stir.  Light catches

One young breast no effete

Mockery of innocence touches.

 

There IS sleep, that much

That would profoundly wake if time

Bore some control over her sublime

Yet disconcerting slumber, such

 

Quietude that must discover death,

Not this mild maiden as she rests,

The light caressing one slight breast,

But ours, who suck in breath

 

Each moment our cold time devours,

Whereas she sleeps on

Eternally where we are gone

Toward some other eternity of hours,

 

A lapse from sleep, perhaps awaking.

Our nameless subject cheats

Alone that absence, that awakening.

She will not wake to time that eats

 

Her beauty.  The hand that lightly grips

Its pillow, the other slender on her hip,

White at green velvet shadow,

Knows sleep alone, sad though

 

Her face might seem, a touch

Of melancholy in the dream she faces.

Still must she sense how much

Her sleep eludes, what grace is.

 

The décolleté reveals an innocence,

A trace of undergarment, white

Against rust, the jacket

Peeled against her skin, her sense,

 

A patch of black, perhaps a skirt.

The latter complements her hair,

Which, tousled, graces care

In the inward face, our hurt,

 

That, should we scream at this mild wench

Or even Balthus and his skill,

The girl would never flicker.  Will

Of the master freezes our intent.

 

It is ALL somber, all but the understated

Breast that leaps somehow in light

Against encroaching night,

A morning summoned, unabated.

 

Face and breast are focus,

The latter for its youthful voice,

The former that it can't evoke us,

Here asleep, in truth, for truth has choice.

 

Our dreams are seldom dreamt awake.

This girl has voice, for our sake,

Ambition of a slumber without pain.

OUR anguish is we rise again.

 

 

vii          GIRL IN GREEN AND RED          1944

 

 

This lady is diminutive

In all but power.

We can recite her virtues, but our

Words reach merely a recitative

 

Of impotence against that stance,

Its final, unyielding hour.

Balthus bathes her countenance

Half in light, poised against sheer

 

Red, her arm extended to the candle's base.

All else beyond the sauciére,

The table drape, roast, is just a trace

Of shadow.  No small care

 

Is given to the hand in light.

The other seems withered, lost,

As if to grace at any cost

A maiden, half he'll slight.

 

And yet there are two girls,

One proud, imperious, bathed

In light, the other enslaved

By shadow.  The hair, its curls

 

Are indistinct, demands

The flawless half a face we see.

It is not enough that she is lovely.

The half in age commands

 

Some eternal now,

A burst of blood, that, juxtaposed

Against a flash of brow,

The glance, shadows its calm repose.

 

A knife leaks blood

Upon the saucer where the meat is kept.

Blood leaks again where odd

Shadow spills as if the candle's wept.

 

The sauciére is a splash

Of silver looming from her purple cape,

Where death itself would drape

Against that form, that youth.  Rash

 

Innocence must fear the dawn.

This night our proud maiden

Steers above our silent aching

As if all mortal pain is drawn,

 

Furtive, some impotent choice

She'll never have to make.

We watch her mastery take

Our fear and render it in voice.

 

Such voice is silence, calm,

Whisper, shout against the night

That grips her withered hand, a balm

So few will understand, slight

 

As the artist's peers have proved to be.

If God made youth, proud girl,

A swath of green, a cheek, a curl,

Balthus, a God, made thee.

 

 

viii          THE ROOM          1952-54

 

 

The somber room in which she lies

Is partially bathed in light.

Light ravishes her virgin thighs,

Or is it the gnome's sight?

 

The latter is welded to a curtain

She has pulled back for light

Itself to stare.  Again,

It is the gnome's sight

 

Which frightens, the spill

Of her intentions, bathing chin,

Breasts, navel, pudendum,

Thighs, socks, with the light's chill.

 

Even the cat is crazed,

There upon a book upon a table, amazed

That such ugliness is able

To reduce this private moment to a fable,

 

An artist's narrative

With brush, tempera, paint.

Balthus is no ready saint,

Nor is the nymph.  Yet no pejorative

 

Tones grace cleft or burnished skin.

It is the gnome's envy which opposes

Such plump, virginal poses.

Even her fierce glance is sin.

 

Light has her captive object

In a wash of impudence,

For lust burns deep once

It lives lust's harsh effect.

 

Is it the gnome's desire

In tattered skirt, a fierce

Geometry?  Or do our eyes pierce

The glass which prevents our fire

 

From reaching such poetry?

Light bathes a nymph's form

Splayed as if for light alone.  The harm

Is null.  He has created merely

 

Deity, the master, flesh

In a somber room,

A spill of light in gloom,

A carnal willingness, fresh

 

As light pouring through the panes.

Within this room no rapist reigns,

Simply a startled cat,

More taken by intention than by fact.

 

Four glass panes leak color

In a darkened chamber.

To no darkness is the gnome stranger.

Her vision stabs through all pallor,

 

All gloom, every hindrance duty

Harbors for a carnal bent.

We are less taken by the virgin's beauty

Than a gnome's intent.

 

 

ix      JAPANESE GIRL WITH RED TABLE      1967-76

 

 

This stylized nude in granular planes

Loops, a yellow tint of skin,

Lush flesh, in static ballet, a skein,

An arch of belly.  She strains

 

To fathom her particular beauty,

Loveliness of yellow tone

In pastel hush.  Eyes moan

That Balthus lives a lie.  If mute, he

 

Voices STILL deception—

The planes of color counterpoint

A soft geometry, anoint

Her spill, the bold confection,

 

Lovely as girl itself, eyes

Rapt in inquiry, thighs

Poised along the ochre rug,

A knee raised to the thighs' hug,

 

Accent of hip, while belly drapes

With its buff sash

And bow—and yet eyes clash.

NO clamor issues from these shapes,

 

Their glow, no strain

Beyond her vigil at the mirror.

Somehow at last we fear her

Dignity, the carnal loop and plane.

 

Arm arcs with the dancing leg

That lifts the mirror for her intent

Purpose.  Each limb has cant

To contrast, symmetry.  They beg

 

No prurience from our observation,

No arousal.  We are meant to look,

Not stare, even at the pastel hook

Of loins, their lilt, our celebration.

 

She too's alone.  Yet linked to color,

Tints, a subtle fierceness in our minds,

For there where her body twines

Is Balthus and his power,

 

Lush of her hue and glow,

A lilt of LIMBS, the space of quiet.

THIS quiet leaks toward riot.

We try to couple his brave show.

 

We gaze to will and yet no gaze

Nor willing interrupts.

We are impotent, dazed.

No small amount of beauty erupts

 

To tantalize our vision, senses.

Mute duty dances,

Static in our hearts.

Where we recede, her beauty starts.

 

A Japanese? Perhaps.  No race

Confines her sensual thrust.

She has given us to trust

The given, a pastel loop, OUR dust, her praise.

 

 

x        NUDE WITH CAT AND MIRROR        1977-80

 

 

There is such joy in this plump form

And in her gay surroundings.

She seems to eye her face in warm

Glass.  We mirror with our poundings.

 

Heart leaps at this young beauty,

A joy she breathes to spy a cat

Gazing through glass that

Would reveal her features.  Duty

 

Calls us to reproach such art

That captivates small tarts

And marshals all our aching.

SHE senses hearts were meant for breaking.

 

And yet without malice.

Her innocence transcends your Alice.

It is wonderland itself.

There is a motion to her health,

 

A pastel pomp, vibration.

Legs spread to her plump cleft,

Which moves bereft

Of sin or cerebration.

 

A Botticelli smile adorns her eyes.

The cat itself betrays its master.

Even the checkered cloth at the thighs'

Fork for lesser talents spells disaster.

 

This jolly nymph inspects her face,

And yet perhaps she eyes her cat's.

The mirror's glass is gone perhaps.

The cat itself would lick her ways.

 

All manner of decoration whirls

About the central figure.

Such rapt innocence fails to trigger

Sexuality or even mirror the girl's.

 

A play of light embraces

Each small charm,

From poised right foot, her face's

Lilt, the upraised arm.

 

She is caught in light's tangle.

A pastel subtlety of limbs

Caresses all that pastel climbs

From stepping bench to wench to angle.

 

Such small folk requires

Assistance into bed.

She must never dread

The offered nor its fires.

 

Little one, you are caught

By Balthus, who advances into age.

One can sense what he is not—

A sycophant consumed by rage,

 

A pedophile, a lecherous goat.

Admiration catches in our throat.

What he has touched, we skim,

Shamed by the livid beauty of your skin.

 

 

xi          SLEEPING NUDE          1980

 

 

Child of repose, her geometrics stun.

There are no angles that her angles shun.

She is asleep, and yet the world

Sleeps.  Even the headdress curled

 

Against her brow is charm of form.

Sun graces her somnolence, warm,

A face that angels would apprise

In jealous splendor.  Lullabies

 

Cannot reach her.  She is sound

In slumber.  The checkered board is bound

By the same symmetry.  Cubes exude

In jagged even space some rude

 

Gesture of contrition.

The fault is probably their ambition.

Nothing can match or pale her angles,

Cloven thighs and inward tangles.

 

Her innocent rump adorns a pillow,

Somber in its motion, yellow.

A knee is shadowed on the rose bench

Which holds this sleeping wench

 

Where we could grip if luck were such.

This girl eludes our will to touch.

Just for a taste of that pale skin

We'd thrust OUR daughters into sin.

 

And yet she sleeps, heedless of our torment.

A billion masters envy her this moment,

Balthus who betters Balthus, lilt and form.

A taste of such innocence would warm

 

A devil, chill in spite and rage.

This girl will rule all masters into age,

Will rule our quest for powers, riches,

Fame, and all that itch is.

 

Faustus would drop his calling for her lips,

Abandon wisdom for the time she grips.

And yet our quest is hopeless, who would

Earn her praise, her smile, could

 

Praise be given to the thief of time—

A sleep, a yawn, and then divine

Madness, willing a shudder to her thighs.

NO trick of ours could tempt her eyes

 

More than a flicker, yawn.

She sleeps eternal.  Age moves on.

Age shudders.  It is caught by such as she.

She need not open eyes to see

 

The poverty of vision as it's bent

To secular ambition, cant.

We'd feel your flesh and leave you spoiled.

Such is the wisdom that would make you old.

 

Such is the wisdom that would make you free.

NO mortal fashioned such as thee,

Your cleft, your breasts, your soft repose.

All beauty ends.  Yours softly grows.

 

 

xii          UNTITLED          1981-82

 

 

On the other hand, what can we make

Of this trickster, no more than twelve,

Striding with the pale blue towel

Like Pavarotti,

 

Or Balthus, at eighty, who fashioned her?

Even the table apes her legs,

The graceful ungainly arc

That pushes toward some future.

 

Is it his or ours?  The hour's

Late for manunkind.

We lay awake nights planning

Our detonations.

 

This lilt of flesh would mirror

Our frustrations—we

Who are caught in time, time's grip,

Wishing for even the towel's

 

Proximity to blazing youth

In this lush figuration.

Loop of the belly, trace of navel,

Where are you going,

 

Cain or Abel?  What can SHE see

Beyond the open door

Or in her heart?  No wail

Could startle such innocence,

 

Triumph of one young tart

Over all our petty

Little decadence, our rage to scream

That youth itself

 

Were more obscene

That we might trace it.

No willing makes us face it.

We are caught

 

In lust, decision.

We who would buy this planet

With our savings bonds

Or deferred holdings,

 

How ripe are we for this

Girl's scoldings, how ripe are we

For sin?

Sadly enough we can't begin.

 

Balthus, old snicker of a mind,

Poises above

This wreckage and its ravings.

He offers simply a child's flesh

 

And then withholds it.

No Billy Graham apostle

Has the grace

That scolds it.  Winds like her hand about a towel

 

Our pale ambition.

SHE carries all she needs.

Our universe

Recoils toward vague contrition.

 

                                    1986