Jill Bialosky's "The Figure"
From a blank canvas sprang a swirl of color and emotion:
a mysterious figure emerging from a dark thicket.
Was he beautiful? Did it matter?
For once ugliness could be a form of beauty: an equivalent
to prove the soul's existence.
Dried paint like a second skin on our hands, its oily smell—
was it possible to replicate love?
The paintbrush unleashed a river of blood.
The day darkened in the room. Time lost track.
We forgot our mothers still in bed, the failure of fathers,
secret lives of our sisters. Is it the figure's mystery
that enthralls or the shock of seeing manifest the passion
we longed to hide? Is he our stillborn twin or a lost love
buried under the debris of daily existence? Or the terror
of loss itself? Brutal hands, a slash of red.
On "The Figure"
Where does art come from? How does inspiration, imagination seize hold? How important a role does memory and the interior life play in creation?
"The Figure" is an attempt to capture this mysterious, mercurial process. As a child, I remember painting in the art room, my favorite room at my elementary school. When my son went to kindergarten and we were given a tour of the art room all those memories of art class came forth. I was both compelled and terrified. What would I produce? Would my paintings have any meaning? Would they be beautiful? I loved the art room: the smell of paint, the aluminum sink where we washed our brushes, the walls bedecked with posters of enthralling paintings from the great masters. Later, when I took my first poetry workshop at the University of Iowa, my poet-teacher told us to "write what hurts." This poem is in one way a conflation of those experiences.
"The Figure" is one of the opening poems in my new book, Intruder. In the poem, "the figure," or 'intruder' appears in the imagination of the speaker and then on her blank canvas, and comes to life, as it were, a figure both bewitching and seductive. This figure in different guises—sometimes as muse, doppelganger, or imagined lover— moves in and out of many of the poems in Intruder. The book itself can be read as one long meditation on the nature or intrusion of Eros, art, and imagination on ordinary life. And it was entering my son's art room when the creation of this figure began to blossom in my imagination.
Jill Bialosky is the author of the poetry collections The End of Desire, Subterranean, and| Intruder, and her poems have appeared in journals such as The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly. She is also the author of two novels, House Under Snow and The Life Room, and an editor at W. W. Norton. She lives in New York City.
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"The Figure" by Jill Bialosky from Intruder. Copyright © 2008 by Jill Bialosky. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing House, a Division of Random House, Inc.