Notebook/To Lucian Freud/On the Veil

Mark Doty

I love starting things

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Fat and shadow, oil and wax,
mobility solidified,
like cooled grease in a can –

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Seeing how far I can go

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      Analiese said, happily, ‘He paints the ugliness of flesh,’
      but that isn’t it: flesh without the overlayer, how we ought to see it,
all we’re taught –

      January sky over Seventh. To the north,
      a slab of paraffin. A wax table. Then it pinks,

      shifts, at the most complicated hour, after sunset, before dark, the lamps already on. A deepening blue at the sky’s centre, but the tops of the buildings still warmed by the last of sunlight,
      the way he fixes the face at its most subtle hour

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One of the things that makes you continue is the difficulty surely

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      all the decisions of colour revealed, light making available every nuance of a (sur)face so plainly itself it’s become plea and testament.

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      Ugly: resist the term, or open it:       the living edge resisting?
      Surface the heart of the matter.
      Strange achievement: to see skin
       as no one else.

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Never any beauty

greater than the body hung in the ceaseless wind of time
and repeating in that current its stream of postures,

skin perpetually lit from within
as if by its own failure –

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When I paint clothes I am really painting naked people who are covered in clothes

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January in grisaille.
      Sarah and Lucy erased,
            weirdly euphonious terms:

lymphoma, heroin.
      Then an anonymous body
            on the sidewalk,

a fifth-floor room onto Sixth Avenue,
      the aching window open all afternoon.
            A man on our block

pulled from his car and beaten
      with a tyre iron by another driver
            who wanted him to hurry up

and pass the garbage truck.
      Flesh fails and failure
            is visited upon it.

The book of Freud’s paintings
      a brooding invitation, catalogue
            of human suspension in time

and today I think they’re an oil
      and pigment howl,
            outpouring against limit.

But as soon as I’ve said it,
      the old argument resumes,
            the ambiguity of vanitas:

do these paintings of dying things
      warn or celebrate,

does their maker caution or consume?

My life in the fields of this argument,

shifting skin
      the live veil,
            

elongated grammar of muscle,

this moment’s agreement of light

on the pure actual. (No such thing as the body,)

Fact of a wrist.

Vein troubling a forehead.

Melville: How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?

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                                    (By the waterfountain in the gym)

On the huge man’s left arm TRUST
above an image he called the god of joy
on his right forearm
inscribed above the veins
a centaur

symbol of leadership he said
of direction

I couldn’t speak, in some deep basement of myself thinking
Maybe his great body is the fact

I require …

the dream of being realised

And half the night I’m thinking
of the immense human wall
and veil of him. What is it
we want from a body;

the lying-awake longing,
to what does it attend? Whitman:
These thoughts in the darkness why are they?

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Clothing veils
the real;
      flesh conceals –

what to call it?
quick lively presence quickening
through the lidded eyes,

a moment’s sharp attention,

the painting looking back at us?

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The mystery isn’t mind
      (what else are we, evidently,
            besides aware?)

but materiality, intersection
      of solidity and flame,
            where quick and stillness meet –

Materiality the impenetrable thing.
      We don’t know what it is
            other than untrustworthy –

all bodies, even the young,
      who rightly think
            they’re untouchable:

that faith’s their signature
      and credential.
            I am a body less reliable,

and therefore the rough-scumbled peaks
      of these faces thrill, familiar –
            aspects of flesh breaking here,

the way we say waves break
      become visible at the instant
            of their descent.

Caught somewhere in the arc.
      How will these look
            in a hundred years?

Stunningly here.

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Intricate wall
of appearances –

                        lit at its highest entablatures,

water towers and rooftops, cornice and capital,
      smokestack and chimneypot picked out

by the glow slanting across the river,
      intensified Hudson-light,

and warm lamps in the high windows,
      neon over the shopfronts

flickering on;

world of consummate detail,
      the city lay back, shambling, corpulent, nude … (why he loves the big frame: because it is no longer
            flesh but the flesh)

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Nothing ever stands in for anything. Nobody is representing anything.

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My god: every body
of a piece, every factual expanse of skin,
the contour of them –

that’s what language can’t do, curve and heft of it,
that stretch … Oil and shadow,
fat and wax, grief solidified.

There’s no one else.
You and I the common apprehension of this.

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Our chests open, arms back,
the teacher said, ‘This is a position
of FIERCE VULNERABILITY – ’

I thought, that’s it, that’s
exactly a position one could live
toward, to stand in permeable faith,

and yet such force in that stance,
upright, heart thrust out
to the world, unguarded, no hope

without the possibility of a wound.
‘To hold oneself in this pose,’ he said,
‘takes incredible strength.’

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Everything is autobiographical

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I look at his pictures and want
above all language muscling up,
active work of pushing out some sound,
throat and muscle of the tongue,

some hope of accuracy –

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and everything is a portrait, even if it’s a chair

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Accuracy? Go on, then –

to write the tragedy of this body

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I want to go on until there is nothing more to see