— Eileen R. Tabios

“the derivation of the adjective venereal is from Venus!...I was stunned!”
—Dr. William Carlos Williams

Perhaps it was the mysterious Chinese
girl, “bedbug-like in character,” who
slipped syphilis to Van Gogh
in Antwerp. After the painter cut off
his ear, a psychologist speculated over
how the Dutch word for ear—lel—

sounds like the Dutch slang word for penis—
lul. When memory is dominated

by fear, have you noticed how it is not
fear but Terror? How to perceive the shift

of stars without feeling them fade or fall?
The psychologist continued his theory, thus

failing, like many of us, to break a pattern of speculation.
Van Gogh gave his ear to a prostitute because

her rumpled bed still stank from Gauguin’s visit.
Have you noticed how unresolved feelings

are often masochistic? I admit relief at discovering
the pattern of longing fuels my poetry:

“Lucy, unrequited love is still a form of life?”
After his syphilis-infected, long-haired Polynesian

girls who had yet to birth memories of
a man’s distraction over their breasts,

Gauguin ended his days decrying “colonial
oppression”—what forms of physical reality

are manifested by the concept of Irony? Have you
noticed how many questions may be answered

with one word: Everything? Michelangelo
possessed incomparable draftsmanship

except for breasts. This flaw seems inexplicable
for a sculptor weaned by a wet-nurse

both daughter and wife of stone masons.
Have you noticed the seemingly random manner

that attaches a certain weight to a certain matter—
what is the significance of Michelangelo

spending hours on his back painting the Sistine
Chapel for the syphilitic Pope Julius II?

Does the importance occur through the form of the
question? Should I rephrase the question as follows:

what is the significance of Michelangelo spending
hours on his back servicing a syphilitic Christian?

How to feel the Milky Way expand because, simply,
upon my waist you once placed your hand? Now,

I wish to interrupt this poem’s flow for rupture, too,
is part of rapture; my digression here is to reveal:

horsehairs placed in a barnyard’s water trough
will turn to wriggling eels by morning. Oh, (do not laugh!)

I promise you the truth of that statement though claiming
to know Truth is “a huge responsibility.” Is this not

why Da Vinci dissected criminals who died with hard-ons
to demonstrate that erections are caused by blood

suffusing the organ, rather than the common belief
of his time that the penis is inflated by the retention

of wind? Have you noticed how scientists must
become radical if they wish to pursue ecstasy?

In my time, women have written tomes
on the inadvisability of men thinking with—

well, you know. Da Vinci’s perspective on the penis
originates from a different angle: men are wrong

to cover the penis whose separate intelligence—
that it rise or not according only to its will—warrants

the display of the penis “with much adornment.”
How may a penis be decorated? (Is redefining “over-the-top”

inevitable?) Perhaps it can be painted like a comet’s tail—
that burst of bliss before falling to gravity’s nest? No,

that simile was too obvious; let us proceed to Cellini
whose concern for his legacy included the desire

for history to acknowledge his repute as a lover. I raise,
so to speak, Cellini now to encourage the contagion

of compassion, such as warranting Cellini’s insecurities
with our interest. Once, Cellini offered a mistress

to Bacchiacca. Perhaps this truly was an act of generosity.
But have you noticed how there is no Platonic concept

for Generosity—how generosity is often motivated by mere co-
incidence? Would Cellini have offered his mistress

to Bacchiacca if she was not riddled with venereal
diseases and the two painters were not rivals? Have you

noticed how the concept of disease leaves
an invisible seam between the notions of

physical versus psychological? Our good doctor,
William Carlos Williams, remembers one Finnish

word taught by a family servant: Hamahakquivergo.
I raise this dissonance because, truth to tell,

I am wondering if I have written all these words
so far only to manifest the one Finnish word

Dr. Williams knows: Hamahakquivergo means Cobweb.
Would it be awful to have spent years writing a poem only

to discover it is over a cobweb? I intended to write on
the tangled skeins of transmissions from sexual acts. (I in-

tended to pluck from the narrative of Nigel Cawthorne’s
amusing and amused book, SEX LIVES of the GREAT

ARTISTS.) But, haven’t we all noticed by now that history
may be is a circular matter rather than a linear progression?

Cobweb. Hamahakquivergo. Well, let’s clear the throat
and continue: I like what I hear about Titian as a lover

for he seemed kind. Have we all not been children once?
Why is Kindness such an underrated virtue? The wise

 Titian did not discriminate between his daughters,
giving the illegitimate Emilia the same dowry

of 700 ducats he gave his legitimate daughter Lavinia.
Still, I admire Titian mostly for how he painted all

his nudes with their eyes open. .Have you ever made love
from beneath a blindfold? Behind the blindfold,

“desire stops time.” Trust me: try. Have you ever fucked
someone blindfolded? The diction is deliberate, you see—

when one half of a couple is blindfolded, one is a lover
while the other is a canvas, page, smoke… Have you ever

noticed: when a portrait’s subject stares back
the art object is dematerialized—the painting

transcends the surface of brushstrokes, the edge of canvas?
Truly, I like Titian and what he teaches about feminism

(and even 20th century post-modernism). But I am unsure
if I like the father of William Carlos Williams. Shortly after

his father died, the poet dreamt him walking out of a building.
“Pop! So you’re not dead!” Dr. Williams cried. His father

only looked up (squinting?) from some business letters clutched
in his hand to comment severely, “You know all that poetry

you’re writing…Well, it’s no good.” After that, Dr. Williams
said, he never dreamt of his father again. How to

perceive with tenderness, as Jose Garcia Villa once suggested?
How to see without the shade from lifting a palm over

one’s red-rimmed eyes? What is the difference between
a happily-married poet—like “I” now standing before you—

writing about adultery versus Rembrandt who was unable
to paint his second wife as a courtesan? (Is this a failure?)

Have you noticed how difficult it is to be lyrical

when one is attempting a joke? I have been trying,

you see, to insert moments of resonance in this poem

and notice now how fragile the words stand against
bawdy events I must raise as I discuss sex:

is it possible for the words “fucking” or “penis”
to generate the volta of Li-Young Lee’s favorite haiku:

Such a moon:
The thief stops in the night

to sing

What does it mean about me that as I write in the world

through this haiku, I mostly notice how its three lines disturb

the two-line form of the couplet? Have you noticed

how often we become our own worst enemies?

This time, I return to the subject of “sex” out of

a despairing resignation that I have lost so many words

and yet mustered no “significant” insight. I feel

my failure at creating the Poem versus lines etching

their aftermath on my wrinkled but welcoming brow. So, what

shall we make of Goya who painted The Nude Maja at a time

when nudes were forbidden by The Inquisition?

With some consolation, I am pleased to sense a feeling of

fortitude welling up as I offer that Goya manifested political

courage: “significant” breasts and a healthy crop of

pubic hair! Please share my joy over artists becoming

political through form versus content! But how to live

with other forms of knowledge? Such as your existence

within the city in which I measure each street—each

individual brick of stone, each slab of concrete, each inch

of tar—by their probability of receiving your light-brimmed steps

a few inches from where I may stand as a salt statue

frozen in unrequited longing? It has been so long since

I have entered a church. It has been so long since

I experienced the feeling of “walking upon a cloud”—

a phrase William Carlos Williams defines as the “calm”

that overcame him upon hearing the minister bestow

a benediction: “And may the peace of God which passeth

all understanding be and abide with you now

and forever more. Amen.” Inevitably, I come to

address Rodin. Of course The Thinker was thinking

of sex. One countess who posed for Rodin claimed

shock at his drawings of a woman “so shameless

as to take her melancholy pleasure in front of him.”

I am surprised the countess did not learn to name

a spade “space” by calling masturbation “masturbation.”

After all, this is the same woman who found it

“totally natural” that Rodin would fall on his knees

before her, take her by the feet and spread her legs.

Is a spade a “spade”? Do things become only

what they are named? Nor do I understand why

Delacroix is considered as great a diarist

as he was a painter. Once, he described a sexual

bout as “risk(ing) syphilis.” I would rather have

read Delacroix explain his decision for exposure—

did she have lovely eyes, or gave “good mouth”?

Or must I chide myself for this premature conclusion:

I have not read directly from Delacroix’s diary, only Caw-

thorne’s reference to it. I should know better than

to mistake the reproduction for what it copies. Have you

noticed the difficulty of maintaining lucidity, as if

our natural predisposition is to hide knowledge

from ourselves? Why must knowledge hurt

rather than simply offer itself like a Jackson Pollock

drip painting or the night sky where shifts, ruptures

aborted directions and, always, the riot of feeling

comprise a beauty of harmony? How to know that teal velvet

on pink tar is a painting, not the dream where I once

saw white velvet against black tar? How to know to avoid

penthouse windows because, once, I dreamed I possess

the whitest of wings? [insert caesura] Should I rise

from my writing chair to boil an egg so that I can return to

this poem with “the new mind” Dr. Williams recommends for

creating The Poem (I first typed, “Pow-em”)? Was it Rimbaud

who said the bears are dancing but what we had wanted

to do was to move the stars to pity? Still, Rimbaud had it

over me—I have moved only one thing (in self-conscious bathos)

and that thing is my belly to the chocolate cake whose siren

song within the refrigerator is drowning out my Muse, even though

it is Eros. Well, don’t sniff—cake was a good enough subject

for Wayne Thiebaud. [insert pause] It occurs to me: I know nothing

about Thiebaud’s sex life. But I can say about Renoir

that he loved the girls from Les Halles for letting

their breasts sing soprano above their bodices.

I can say that Cezanne painted still lives for

he feared naked women against whom,

he uttered, “One has to be on the defensive”!

Or that Seurat’s mistress who bore him a son

was unknown even to his most intimate friends

until after his death. I share her name proudly

with you: Madeleine Knobloch. For I would like

to be a poet’s secret mistress, but don’t tell that

to my husband because my beloved husband is not

a poet. This sidesteps the question of whether

a wife can be her husband’s secret mistress—

I would address this issue but my wrinkled brain

is screaming at the top of its metaphorical lungs: STOP

THIS POEM NOW! Perverse thing that I am—

otherwise I would not be a poet?—I continue:

Many men have informed me but only Degas

has showed me the great joy of glimpsing

a beautiful woman through an open doorway

taking a bath. Have you noticed how swiftly a sideway

glance transforms a subject in a way intent looking

would not have allowed? Is there a spectrum

to sight as there exists for light? Would the

position of crimson remain at the edge of vision?

I want to see as William Carlos Williams did

when he felt a dim garden, long neglected, by looking

at the crumbling bricks on a high wall. This is the same

man who once fell in love with the corpse

of a young negress—a “high yaller,” Dr. Williams

called her—lying stripped on the dissecting table.

I raise my head now to ask: have I mentioned yet

Ezra Pound? For I am not a modest enough poet,

you see, to write such a long long poem without

mentioning Pound. I shall say about Pound:

he used to pain the doctor by asking him to listen

to his poems. Dr. Williams recalls, Pound’s voice

would trail off in the final lines of his lyric

until the good doctor would explode: “Unless I

can hear the lines how can you expect me

to have an opinion of them. What do you think

I am, an apteryx?” Apteryx—great for Scrabble,

don’t you think? It is spelled, A-P-T-E-R-Y-X. Does

anyone here know what it means? I shall tell you—


DICTIONARY which defines it as, “The kiwi.” Well,

no doubt that elucidates. By the way, it never fails,

does it?—this neat gimmick to insert a question

within the poem that, were I to read it out loud

to an audience, would allow me to form a sense

of intimacy not otherwise possible by me simply reading

and you simply listening? Are we feeling intimate yet?

Thus, shall we turn our attention back to sex?

The womanizing Gainsborough married a Duke’s daughter

for her money, not her beauty. Later, his youngest

daughter Margaret would die at the age of nineteen

from syphilis inherited from her father who often

signed off from his letters: “Yours up to the hilt.”

Where is it written that transcendence must be

difficult? How to behave like an angel when rapture,

as Lucifer knew, occurs through the fall? Heal me,

I plead with William Carlos Williams. The good doctor

responds with this tale: once, Ezra Pound played

the piano, letting fly with everything—Liszt, Chopin,

anyone you can name. But, the good doctor recalls,

“Everything resulted except music.” Why must there

be limitations to extreme emotions? Have you noticed

the pathos in that constraint? When I consider

pathos, I also think of John Ruskin who discovered

on his wedding night that, unlike marble statues,

women have pubic hair. To that discovery, he could

not rise to the occasion. Eric Gill, on the other hand,

considered the pubic hair a matter of philosophical

research—nevertheless, this is a pale tidbit compared

to Gill’s fascination with the sexual organs of animals,

such as peering through a microscope to compare

a cow’s semen to his own. Gill expanded the scope

of defining “voyeurism” as well as the issue of scale

often raised about the penis—and it occurs to me again

how hard it is to avoid that word “penis” which is

unfortunate since “penis” resonates as flaccidly

as “Ezra Pound” or “anus.” When I wish to soar from

the surface of words, I do not think of “Ezra Pound,”

“penis,” or “anus.” I think of azure, kimono, apricot,

adobe, Angkor Wat, magenta, anvil, silver moth…

How to taste black pepper exploding in the mouth

when today’s lunch is a sandwich of mashed potatoes

encased between two slices of white bread?

I taste pepper when I consider Toulouse-Lautrec’s

images of whores clad only in thigh-high black stockings.

My mouth explodes when I consider this dwarf painter’s

definition of paradise: a world of “female odours

and nerve-endings.” I have dreamt of Toulouse-

Lautrec dying in my arms, reeking from the alcohol

he drank to forget that he was “martyr(ed) to the Big S”—

once, Degas observed, Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings even

stunk of syphilis. Once, William Carlos Williams undressed

a big lump of a man in dirty overalls who had fallen twenty

feet while lugging stones in a red wheelbarrow. The nurses

shrieked when they cut away his bloody workclothes

to discover a woman’s silk chemise with little ribbons

at his nipples, that his chest and legs where shaved,

that he wore panties and silk stockings. What

determines how we define our secrets? How to

receive and protect secrets without being corroded

by aftermaths of conspiracies? Always, always:

how to discern with compassion? Now, there is no

smooth way to effect this transition as Picasso

enters this poem, nay, penetrates this poem

with the subtlety of a gored young bull. Apparently,

Picasso lost his virginity to a young girl who served

wine in a bar below his studio in Barcelona. Laughter

is a great aphrodisiac and she made him laugh.

Picasso backed her up against a barrel and, in his

own words, “made a man of himself.” Later, Picasso

would add upon noting her thin body and red hair,

it had been like “screwing my father.” The possible

implications of that statement are as obvious

as the tentacles of an octopus entering one of his

Blue nudes. In his “Blue Period,” most of Picasso’s

nudes depict women with their legs spread. What

does it mean if Picasso painted in blue because

syphilis forced him to abstain from sex? Who was

thinking: the man or the throbbing organ that must

remain stimulated and inflamed while enmeshed

in venereal disease? What exactly did Picasso spread

to Modigliani who believed making love to Picasso’s

former lovers would imbue him with some of the

Catalan’s genius? Certainly, I admire the Modigliani

nude’s admirable capacity to shock the viewer

with depictions of sexually satisfied women. Still, I confess

I am mostly charmed by the circumstances of the painter’s birth—

Modigliani was born in a bed piled high with golden

chalices; his father had just gone bankrupt and an ancient

Roman law prevented the bailiffs from taking anything

from the bed of a woman in labour. Have you noticed how

the world so often conspires to exacerbate certain

pathologies, such as postpartum depression?

How to concoct medicines that cure versus trade

one disease for another? How to live life

open to its cornucopia of experience without

the need for lies? Someday, I would like to

stroll through a street without seeing its dimensions

the way Eluard did: as a wound that will not close.

Heal me, once more I plead with William Carlos

Williams who replies, “All right! I shall tell you

of my own bout with syphilis! She was a German

Baroness considered to be a protégé of Duchamp.

Because she loved my poems, she offered her

Buffalo-like body with the advice, “Good doctor:

what you need for greatness is to contract

my syphilis and so free your mind for serious

Art!” Giggling, I reply to Dr. Williams, “Its (de)merit,

notwithstanding the approach, has much precedent.”

My reply may be the only moment of understatement

in this poem, and so worth noting, don’t you think?

With that question I realize, I am not a minimalist

despite wishing to write only silence for your

contemplation. How to know when a poem is finished

when perhaps all that I am writing about now

is simply this one and only matter: scale,

that common concern of paintings and penises?

Does Dali’s fixation on clearing latrines possess

sufficient “significance” to include? Oh, I sigh

at the prospect of transcending Dali’s beloved

word “anus.’ This must be more difficult than

writing the poem between repeating the word, “penis.”

How to insert more “cures”—words effecting

the sublime: Chive, Jacqueline, ash, bride, lang-

uor, stirrup, liqueur, Thai, filter, absinthe, wing,

rose—rose, rose, rose, rose. What becomes

of the dreamer who never leaves the dream?

At age eighteen, Diego Rivera ate a woman

for the first time. I am clarifying by calling

his act “cannibalism” versus “cunnilungus.”

Rivera discovered a French fur dealer who improved

the pelts of his cats by feeding them other cats.

Rivera wondered whether this strategy would benefit

humans. Was it an act of foretelling Frida Kahlo’s plight

when Rivera bought fresh corpses from the city morgue?

The artist discovered he liked both legs and breast,

though was partial, too, to breaded ribs and brains

vinaigrette—as long, he notes, raising a finger,

as they were harvested from young girls. I consider

the effect of war on a father’s face. How, I firmly believe,

a parent should never live longer than a child. How

a child should never witness—should never

witness—events which beg whether they should be

poeticized. How to listen to me share the joys of

pirouetting on the dance floor of the Milky Way

without considering me crazy or, worst, “just being

a poet?” I am whispering to you that when I look

down on this planet we share, the globe flattens itself

into a plane to maximize my vision of its teeming life,

the glory of unceasing chaos. If I do not shade my eyes,

I am rewarded by seeing intuitive grids rise

allowing me to begin singing: ambergris, ion, applejack,

celadon, Guadalupe, Cherie, polyglot, prima facie,

cocoon, lime, ruminate, tango, boilerplate, swish, beaux,

Ganymede, discombobulate, swain, ventricle, mop,

benzene, tamarind, myna, thermometer, willow, magnolia:

magnolia, magnolia, magnolia, magnolia…

We are ending a serious hour. Dr. William Carlos

Williams removes his stethoscope to proclaim, “Eileen,

any worth-his-salt physician knows that no one is ever

cured.” I suppose this means I must keep singing—Magnolia:

magnolia, tendril, grenadine, opus, maharani, MacDowell,

serendipity, tendril, licorice, hecatomb, calyx, glint,

periwinkle: periwinkle, periwinkle, periwinkle, periwinkle…