Managing editor Matt Weinkam on today’s bonus essays: Ekphrasis, I recently discovered, literally means “to speak out.” In Kathleen Rooney’s three ekphrastics she doesn’t describe the paintings of Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte but rather lets his wife, Georgette, “speak out” about the silence of paintings, stopping time, and their beloved Pomeranian dogs, all called Loulou.
If someone invites you to come over and enchant them, but you arrive with a plan to outrage instead, you’ll likely succeed. Georgette understands that when she talks about her husband’s Vache paintings, she has to proceed under the assumption that nobody likes them. Except she does.
This image is fast. This image is aggressive. One of the ones Mag painted in a handful of weeks for his first solo show in Paris, 1948. He wanted people to hate them, and hate they did. This image piques.
Femme vache means a nastily corpulent woman, but this woman here is perfectly proportioned, modelled off Georgette herself. The word scruples—as in hesitation or doubt—comes from the Latin rough pebble; Georgette admires this title for its suggestion that her husband had none about orchestrating this car crash of bad taste: a caricature, a comic, a Matisse, a Manet.
She’s the Venus de Milo with Olympia’s head and a little bit of Fauvism draped around her waist, and arms she’s using to grab a handful of her own boob. Behind her—is that stuff wallpaper or what? The critics called him rude. Georgette feels a catharsis, crude and joyful. Oil on canvas and nude nude nude. The way she licks her own shoulder!
The pearls around her neck made the public clutch—predictably—their pearls. Obscenity, they moaned. Pearls before swine. It failed to sell so he ended up giving this one to Georgette. “You’ve never quit wooing her, have you?” asked Loulou the Pomeranian when he did, having brought it back to Jette. “No, my friend, I haven’t,” said Mag. Which is fine with her.
Perspective II: Le Balcon
All paintings, thinks Georgette, are dumb, which isn’t to say stupid, but rather to say silent. We come up and search for answers, which they cannot give because they cannot speak. Her husband has spent his life in provocation of seeking. “Every single thing which we see conceals something else,” he says. “We would dearly love to see what that which we can see is hiding from us.”
From each other Georgette and Mag conceal nothing. He reads his letters to their dear friend Harry in the States aloud to her before he sends them. On January 17, 1966, he wrote: “I am responding to existential circumstances with less (if possible) vitality than usual: I am numb from the cold, I have a cast on my right wrist (I fell on it and it won’t be healed, according to medical prognostics, before February 7th).”
When she was younger, Georgette found a painting’s non-response coy and almost erotic: a crush going unrequited. But as twilight falls, the quiet seems more death-like. A portrait might as well be a coffin for all it can offer of the person therein.
Mag knew this years and years ago, when he painted this perspective in reply to Manet: Caskets sitting. Caskets standing. Caskets staring at the inaccessible distance. He left the blue hydrangea in, but removed the dog with a ball, perhaps not wanting to call to mind the eventual death of their Loulou—though the Loulou they have now is a newer one, and white, not the black pom they had in 1950.
Behind the coffins is a cozy room with good dim lighting like the one her husband prefers, of late, to spend his time in: Loulou beside him, or at his feet, or upon his lap. Mag’s body is failing, and that mutilates her emotions. The railings and shutters in both paintings are green. She’s read that when Manet debuted it in the Paris Salon of 1869, one mean reply was: “Close the shutters!” Everybody gets shuttered, though, sooner than you’d think. A balcony is a gateway between worlds, but there are some thresholds where crossing is solitary.
She hears Magritte on the telephone, of course, holding the receiver with his left hand so as not to disturb his plastered right. Today, he says to the person on the other end of the line: “For the first time while painting, I’ve gotten some paint on my hand.” Georgette does not want to hear this, nor does she not want to. Soon enough, death will afford them a permanent privacy.
La Légende Dorée
Georgette is a morning person not because she’s virtuous, but because she happens to be one. Her husband happens to be one too, as happens to be their Pomeranian Loulou. Georgette adores their quiet mornings when the world is silent like the interior of a snow globe. When their apartment is mute with understanding, unspoken.
Magritte sits at the kitchen table. Loulou sits at Georgette’s feet. She readies their breakfast: today, brioche. Usually, they buy their daily bread from a bakery up the street, but she’s been wanting to work on this recipe and at present it’s one of the few things Mag can eat.
He suffers liver problems from which he has long sought to be delivered. He composes a letter to their dear friend Harry in the States. He hates, Georgette knows, to complain, but if he doesn’t talk about it a little bit, it takes over his brain and keeps him from painting: “Days of hepatitis attack,” he reads back to her. “I’m on a very strict diet—I can’t eat or drink anything decent, like coffee, tomatoes, fries, etc. It seems that cold weather would be very bad for me.”
At least today looks to be golden and sunny, and he’ll start a new canvas. Right now, he replies to Harry about one that Harry has acquired, the one in which the world looks like the interior of a bread globe: Hovering loaves and their crispy crust-sound as they float all around, outside an open window.
In the letter, over which the two of them and Loulou laugh, Harry has said: “The golden legend—the legend of the centuries—has arrived, superbly intact after having gone astray at the New York airport. Everyone, large and small, is enthusiastic: my nephew, an avid professional at 13, said: But they’re submarines. Here, ‘submarines’ are gigantic sandwiches stuffed with lettuce and served in the summertime at vacation spots. My youngest daughter, Denise-Elizabeth, asked, ‘Why you always stand in the same place on your balcony when you look at the sky,’ and the eldest, Evelyne-Ray, announced that we’d have to repaint the dining-room walls so that they would go with the colors of the Legend of the Centuries. My wife, Marcelle-Hoursy, joins me in expressing to you our joint and repeated admiration.”
The Golden Legend is named after a medieval book of saints, compiled around the year 1260 and added to over the subsequent centuries, full of fanciful etymologies and miraculous cures.
Georgette finishes slicing and wipes the crumbs from the countertop into her hand and throws them outside for the birds who flock to the ledge. She can’t cure her husband, but she can occasionally stop time—she hands him a plate and some jam and he kisses her cheek and Loulou squeaks with delight at his share of the treat—and take their disbelief and suspend it like the sky. The sky. Always with the sky.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. Co-editor with Eric Plattner of The Selected Writings of René Magritte, forthcoming from Alma Books (UK) and University of Minnesota Press (US) in 2016, she is also the author of seven books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, including, most recently, the novel O, Democracy! (2014) and the novel in poems Robinson Alone (2012). Her second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2017.