Faber Academy’s Poem of the Month: August 2023
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We’re very pleased to be introducing this new feature to the newsletter. Poem of the Month will see one Faber Academy affiliated poet select a poem each month and discuss the importance of it, with the hopes it might inspire you yourself to do some writing.
Our first month’s pick was made by Richard Scott. Enjoy!
Man at His Bath
Six years ago, the big museum sold eight famous paintings
to purchase, for unspecified millions,
Gustave Caillebotte’s Man at His Bath.
Now it’s hip to have a print of it,
and whenever I see one hung for decoration,
I’m almost certain that this is what Caillebotte
had in mind when he broke out the oils
in 1884: some twenty-first-century bitch in Boston
catching a glimpse of a framed reproduction,
recollecting a study about how washing oneself may induce
a sense of culpability. What I remember
is he insisted I clean before leaving. That, and he was
trying to be dreamlike. He took my jaw in his hand
and said IN THE NEXT LIFE, WE’LL REALLY BE TOGETHER,
and the clamp in his voice made me almost
certain he knew something I did not. Now I eat right,
train hard, get my shots. This life — I’m angling
to remain in this life as long as I can, being almost
certain, as I am, what’s after —
from Popular Longing (Copper Canyon Press, 2021)
I’m so happy to be choosing the poem of the month for the Faber Academy newsletter.
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about ekphrasis and this poem, ‘Man at His Bath’ by
Natalie Shapero, breathes newness and excitement into the genre. Shapero begins in a
seemingly relaxed and vernacular fashion however her poem, a kind of elongated sonnet
perhaps, soon reveals itself to be dense with complex ideas about value, the role of
reproduction in art history, academic thought regarding ‘washing’ and ‘culpability’ and, after
the volta, goes onto surprise us further with a frank recollection of a creepy hook-up which
might ultimately be about a passion to live, outlive, and survive. The poem also effortlessly
and humorously evokes the strangeness of time – over a century might have passed between
Gustave Caillebotte’s painting of Man at His Bath and ‘some twenty-first-century bitch in
Boston / catching a glimpse of a framed reproduction’ – and yet these years might be
instantaneously eroded by being in the presence of a work of art. Sunlight and summer also
subtly suffuse this poem – if you take a look at the painting being referred to, you’ll see
bright, painful sunlight massing behind the muslin curtain and being reflected in the tin bath.
Gustave Caillebotte’s beautiful, yet bizarre, painting is brought to life, made vivid and
perhaps even relevant to our twenty-first centuries lives via Shapero’s generous poem which
demonstrates the atmospheric power of an artwork and how it might transform a space or
haunt a hook-up. And, magically, the poem achieves all of this without actually describing
the painting itself. Instead Shapero infers the ablutions with great subtlety; the towel, the
frenzied washing, the clenched back, shame are nowhere within the poem and yet are
everywhere. It’s a bold and skilful piece of writing. Enjoy!
Man at His Bath
Painting by Gustave Caillebotte (1884)