Like Manet’s ‘Olympe’

Ruth Fainlight

Like Manet’s ‘Olympe’, naked in the afternoon heat
and manilla-shaded light, my aunt lay
on the green watered-silk of her bedspread. Smooth hair,
proud head, short but shapely legs and
high breasts were so much the same as the painting
I had just fallen in love with, that I faltered, still
half in the doorway, almost afraid to enter.

Through one moted beam that cut across the room
between us, I saw her reflection, pale as an ocean
creature, floating deep in the dressing-table mirror
over splinters of sun from the jumble of bottles
and jars – stern eyes seeming to dare me closer.

But this was a small house in Virginia, not
the Paris of artists. In spite of leather-bound volumes
of Schopenhauer and Baudelaire and Saturday
opera broadcasts, her aesthetic was helpless
against suburban power. The loneliness
and vanity and fearfulness which kept her
from dalliance made me the only possible
audience, and her adoring victim.

About art and beauty, loneliness and
vanity and fearfulness, how much she taught me.