Choosing between life in a library or a museum—either choice seems disloyal to the other. As a poet I revel in language. I splash in sacred waters, words swirl around me like schools of fish in streams of inspiration. Well sometimes not. Some days I sit on the bank and wait for a nibble, slapping mosquitoes away.
But I have a mute twin who finds refuge in silence, wordless descriptions, emotional constructs revealed in color contrasts, brush marks. A spiritual response to the visual, the intimate sheen of light on stone carved centuries ago, the curve of one painted hand reaching for another. She often dreams and wakes to find her fingers poised as though they held a paintbrush, dabbing on the blank canvas of night
A coin toss and my favorite museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, becomes my home for a year. Some art supplies, a laptop and kindle take care of my creative needs, satisfies my insatiable curiosity.
Entering the familiar doorway, stairs winding up to the galleries, memories of a poetry instructor, Lisel Mueller, greet me like an old friend. We used to meet here on my visits to Chicago, to catch up on our lives, what we were writing, what authors we were reading. The last visit she told me of her impending blindness.
We cried together as we had cried on our first meeting when she’d read a poem about her grandparents, left behind in Nazi Germany when she fled with her parents to America.
I stash my belongings in a coatroom locker, scout galleries for comfortable benches for sleeping, check the restaurant menus and with a glass of wine, toast a new adventure as well as a beloved past.
Visiting Chagall’s windows becomes a daily ritual. Bathed in their intense blue tranquility, I meditate on my life. Shut away from worldly bother, locked in a paradise of art, what will I learn?
Georgia O’Keeffe studied at the art school here. I half listen for her footsteps in the hall as I gaze into her dreams: a ladder floating toward a half-moon above her Ghost Ranch home. In another, a cow’s skull gleams, full blown apparition haunting the desert sky.
Matisse, warm interiors and textile patterns create a space where I can toss my chapeau on a hat rack, relax in an armchair and sigh back at the sea glimpsed through a lace-curtained door left ajar.
Van Gogh’s swirling clouds, fields, stars and winds, his suns that promise another day accompany me to my nightly rest.
Bonnard’s wife, the voluptuous Marte, sunbathes nude in a green and golden garden, a tree offering a peach, new beginning a breath away.
When my tenure ends, I step out into a world where real waves splash a living shore, wind soothes my overtired eyes, Chicago’s bustle alien after my long retreat.
I remember Rilke’s poem written after spotting a headless torso of Apollo in a museum. Out of the blind remnant, the god’s gaze bursts like a star. The poet’s revelation—“here there is no place which cannot see you”—results in his outburst “you must change your life!”
And so O’Keeffe’s ladder beckons for my grasp. Matisse’s room waits for my hand on the door. Van Gogh’s boots crackle dried stems in an empty field, black birds trembling in the sky, remind me I must live while I can. Bonnard’s peach trembles on a branch, genesis a touch away.
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