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Francis Bacon in His Studio


Like a man sitting inside his own decay,
the mine-walls of decorum chipped away

by the chisel of his inwardness: cartons
and rags, the snakeskins of a thousand

empty paint tubes among a garden
of brushes, mixing tins, toppled cans,

cigarette butts, wrappers, every interior
exhausted, except his own, which breaks all form

open to search for the seed of itself,
as if it were a con game, the jewel

passed from shell to shell, while the dumbstruck
artist searches the rubble for the one lost crumb

that can solve the surface, the one that dropped
when the flap of skin fell open on his face.


Long before the flap of skin peeled back like a corn-
husk, he thought, how odd it is to have been born

with a face at all. He kept imagining its imprint
in his mother's womb, solidified there, like handprints

in concrete, though his real face kept changing,
like the surface of a lake, carved by stress, aging,

the lightning quick switchblades of other people's
glances, so that each morning he had to sweep

away the old face with a lather brush and splash
a new one on when he had finished. Not a mask

exactly, but like wearing a weather map, or the face
of a clock, which isn't worn, but drawn and erased

and redrawn by the erratic light inside a room,
so that he felt like a character from some cartoon,

caught inside those claustrophobic boxes, like panels
of a triptych. Always the face wobbled, like Cézanne's

fruit, so that he kept having to adjust himself to fit
behind it, as if he were trying to get comfortable

inside a straightjacket, squirming, his face turning
around him like a globe, as the soul tried to worm

to the surface, to wriggle through the coils and twists
of thought and eat the light before it was extinguished

in the cells. As he worked one night, a fissure perforated one side
of his face, the web loosening around the spider of an eye

until that flap of skin slouched forward, like a woman fainting,
that dramatically, and his darkness spilled into the painting.

Steve Gehrke
Southwest Review
Volume 90, Number 2 / 2005

Copyright © 2005 by Southern Methodist University
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission.

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