Poem of the Week | February 19, 2018

This week, we are excited to offer a new poem by Brianna Noll. Noll is the author of The Price of Scarlet, selected by Lisa Williams as the inaugural poetry collection in the University Press of Kentucky’s New Poetry and Prose Series. She is Poetry Editor of The Account, which she helped found, and her poems have appeared in the Kenyon Review Online, The Georgia Review, 32 Poems, Prairie Schooner, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. She lives in Los Angeles.

Woman and Incandescent Light Bulb, 60-Watt

When he painted the girl, he made her a woman:
longer neck, more defined cheekbones. (No woman would
sit for him.) He sat her right under the naked
bulb-interrogation of shadows. She couldn’t
not squint, so he painted her squinting. The portrait
took three days. He paid her in sandwiches and light
bulbs. But on the fourth day, he awoke to the taste
of struck match on his tongue. It lingered, sulfuric
demon, and then the electricity went out.
The girl knocked on his door–there was no bell–and she
was panicked, her face all furrow. She asked him what
tungsten tasted like. Like metal? Like blood? Like match?
He couldn’t be sure, but he feared it was like match.
The girl opened her mouth; her tongue was filament.
She closed her eyes; her mouth glowed incandescent light.
This made shadows of her woman-bones, persimmoned
the hollows of her woman-cheeks. The painter, dumb-
struck, wobbled and grayed. Well, he was the light maker;
he made the girl into light and shadow. But the
painting–it was gone. The painting was alchemy–
a conjuring, a substantive transformation.
There was no light but for the girl, the house gone dark.
Would she forever be a lantern, or would she
smolder and one day become pure sun? Who could say?
The painter hadn’t ever done like this before.
He worried for the girl, her head growing ever
hotter. He went to his basement studio, stretched
a canvas, then drew the girl again a woman,
the light bulb naked above her, but this time sketched
her pulling the off-chain. The painting was shadow
barely broken by light, a study in shading.
The girl had fallen asleep, but when she awoke
she found her mouth was once again a mouth, and her
body was once again a girl’s. Her woman-bones
and woman-cheeks would return, of course, in some years,
but she’d always miss the day she was a lantern.

Author’s Note:

This poem began as an experiment in syllabics. Each line measures twelve syllables, which was an arbitrary choice, but one that allowed me to write long, narrative lines. The regularity of the lines and stanzas, in the end, provided a stable foundation for an otherwise bizarre lyric narrative.
So why a girl that turns into a light and back again?
She embodies two obsessions of mine: the opportunities and limits of art, and the literalization of figurative language.
I think often of Book X of Plato’s Republic, where Socrates famously argues that poetry is too far removed from both truth and reason. And while I take issue with this as justification for excluding poets from the ideal city–a utopia that discourages emotion may be functional, but not particularly desirable–I do think he’s right that this is how poetry works, and if taken to a certain extreme, I think a poem becomes a distilled figure for imagination itself.
I wanted to write such a poem, and it felt necessary to approach it by yoking form and content. The poem is about a painter, the untruthful representation of his young subject, and the (absurd) consequences that follow. But I am also untruthful in my representation: the poem quickly departs from mimesis by the third stanza, where I begin to literalize the girl’s metonymic association with the light bulb in the painting. What’s the difference between making the girl into a woman and making her into a lantern? This might seem like a ridiculous question, but in the context of imagination it becomes a matter of degree. The painter makes her a woman, and I make her a lantern. Art allows us to do both.