Poetry: Marianne Szlyk

Marianne Szlyk
At the Art Institute
            After Mary Cassatt’s The Child’s Bath (1893)

Thelma remembers the warm, clammy museum she visited as a child.  There the smell of turpentine and charcoal washed in from the art school.  At noon the smell of dank stew and hamburger grease crawled up from the cafeteria.  Some days she could hear the sound of a circular saw from sculpting class.  Tight, heavy braids pulled at her scalp, and the vinyl belt above her stiff white skirt made her suck in her stomach so much that she wanted neither candy nor pop.  Sun streamed down from the skylight, tropical even over Christmas break.  She could smell the green in the lush paintings around her.  Now she knows them as Gauguin, Monet, and Renoir. 

She moves on to this indoor painting by Mary Cassatt, a painter she doesn’t remember from that other museum.  The water in the shallow tin bowl reminds her of the pool where she and her sister Trina stood that summer.  Or rather she stood, and Trina splashed, even stomped while her father stood with the hose, filling up the pool with cool water that smelled of chlorine like a real pool did, while the boombox played all the old songs from last summer. 

The girl in the painting is free like herself and Trina, standing, then splashing, with no dress or petticoats to weigh her down.  The mother in gray and white linen will never be free.  The floor-length dress smothers her as she swims in the day’s heat.  Thelma thinks of her mother and remembers her boiling the cool water from the tap.  Since it smelled of chlorine, it had to be boiled and then refrigerated before anyone could drink it or even make coffee.  She thinks of her mother and remembers her working weekends at Mercy Hospital while her young daughters pranced in their pool, splashing water onto hard dirt and asphalt, dancing to “Stayin’ Alive,” singing “Ring My Bell.”

Thelma shivers in the air-conditioned museum.  She changes her mind. Cassatt’s painting could be set in winter when weak heat radiates from a wood stove.  Wind races across the tiles above, loosening them and letting them fall.   Trying not to tremble, the daughter quickly steps into the warmish, not yet soapy water.  The mother is dressed for the indoor weather of weak heat and strong drafts.  She will wrap her daughter in a thick towel to keep her from shaking.  She will protect her from hunger and the ice that forms on unheated water.  She will protect her from harm.

The Schoolteacher in Summer


In these months I long to be
silent.  No fifty-minute classes
to fill with my projected voice.
No complete sentences.
No instruction.

I long to walk without
my full backpack, to move
less stiffly.

I vow to sit less
and in different places.
To do yoga on rainy mornings.
Read poetry in the junk room
while my cat inspects
the bags of shoes and
summer clothes
I can no longer wear.

I may even
listen.


Summer 2004


The heat rises over the horizon,
over asphalt not yet melting,
yellow lines not yet smearing

the six-lane highway that separates me
from class, from air conditioning.
I cross it in fits

and starts until I am standing
on the median strip far
from trees and walk lights.

Hatless in striped cotton, I stand
beneath a sky the color
of a convertible driving south

into endless summer, blue highways
up into tree-lined mountains, down
to the sea I’ll never see again.

Here there are no trees.  Water
remains in bottles, in purses.
I drink tepid Diet Pepsi.

My students wait in class.
For them, this weather is
nothing like summer was

at home, further south than one
can drive, further south than
I will fly.


Death and the Miser

            After Hieronymus Bosch’s panel of the same name

In the end, Death slips in,
the only whiteness in a room
tinged with blood and sweetly rotting
flesh’s infectious pink.  Terra cotta curtains
are drawn against a dizzying sun.
Death’s light fingers on the door
smell of absence, not brimstone.

He is a wide-eyed neighbor
looking for gossip, looking for loot
like the green-clad brother who clutches
the miser’s coins for his own.

Death sees the blue-ish angel,
color of marble and the future’s
scrubbing powder, holding out a slim
crucifix.  The tiny devil, slimy gob
of spit and ashes, offers a bag
of coins heavy enough to weigh
the miser down. 

Nevertheless, Death will not
stride into this crowded sick room,
forcing the dying man to choose
between coins and crucifix, Hell and
Heaven.

He is waiting for the miser
to decide. 

A Minor Character

            After Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone

She once imagined herself the center
of her life, as the pupil
with such promise.  She once expected
to quickly leave this gated hospital
in the capitol for a post
in the wilderness, a clinic in
the ruins, beneath spreading trees
she couldn’t name although this was
her own country. There dust rose
in the wake of speeding jeeps,
obscuring all names, the native trees’,
her patients’, her co-workers’, her own.

Passing all but the true test,
she remains a student.  She dances
alone in a spotless, narrow room
to a hidden radio turned low.
She hears only rhythm, no lyrics.
Instead she chants her name.
Concealed behind adobe walls, that day
she turns thirty.

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