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Sample Poems by Philip Dacey

Found Sonnet: Thomas Eakins On Painting

Before you paint the sitter, paint the chair.
Get things as they are.  Make a fat man fat.
Why should we copy Greeks?  They copied nature.
The hand shaped right tells how to shape the foot.

Make it better or worse--never compromise.
Take an egg, or paper, and paint that shade of white.
Good pictures tell you what o’clock it is.
Remember, you’re a portraitist of light.

An outline of a man is not a man.
Study math.  Know bones.  Don’t paint when tired.
Devils sometimes live in colors.  Facts and
vision.  To paint the male or female nude,
first attempt a boat running with full sails.
Respectability in art appalls.

Thomas Eakins: The Badlands

             “After his firing for indecency, Eakins recuperated
                             in the Badlands at a cattle ranch.”
                                         Thomas Eakins, John Wilmerding

How far away from Philadelphia
I felt when the cowbirds came to settle
on cattle and horses, to eat their flies,
and even on me, though I had no flies
that they knew about, although the ladies
of Philadelphia would disagree.

I was out helping with the herd one day
and watching from my saddle the black birds
live in harmony with creatures bigger than they
when one bird came to my horse’s head just
as I had thrown my leg all casual
across the pommel and rested, leaning, still.

Down that trusting thing ran in search of flies,
its pretty shape against the mass of neck
a pleasure to see, but finding none hopped
like no lady in Philadelphia
onto my knee, as if my knee and I were
excrescence of horse, part of the food supply.

You should have seen it on my slippery
leather breeches try to find some purchase,
a comic beginning skater on ice,
and finding none of that either open
its wings and flutter them to keep itself
a quarter of an hour on my leg,

touching my hand at times, the way no lady
in Philadelphia would dare touch it,
as if it were but part of wide Dakota,
handscape a form of landscape, and neither a threat,
rather as natural as the bird itself,
black bird and white hand, or brown by then.

The bird seemed to me a muscle with wings,
quick and compact and appetitive,
and I thought of the muscle in Philadephia
the ladies did not want their daughters to see,
no bigger than a bird, its moves stitching
the seamless landscape of anatomy.

To wish the ladies of Philadephia
a fate as cowbirds is not to wish them ill.
I would love them black and winged and slow to fear,
flying all day from me to cow to horse
and back, and they would love my knee: that bird
decamped only when I went to chase a steer.

The Anatomy of Horses: Homage to Thomas Eakins

When, after a winter of boarding,
my next-door neighbor, the bay mare,
comes galloping across her pasture as flat
as a canvas and up to my fence
to take a cube of sugar from my hand,
I think of Thomas Eakins, who so loved horses,
their fifteen hands of mass
standing still or grandly in motion,
that he brought two back with him from South Dakota,
bunked down with them in the freight car
the entire way, and on arrival
proudly rode his favorite, Billy,
through the streets of Philadelphia
out to the Crowells’ farm, the horses’ new home.

He loved horses so much he even spent years
dissecting them, dead meat he studied
to learn the scientific foundation of equine beauty,
the layers of muscle and bone
transformed by some animating, locomoting power
into a caballero’s dream, a living seat of authority
from which to survey one’s vast estate.
And whether he worked with Eadweard Muybridge
to determine the sequence and timing of hooves
drumming around a racetrack or painted
the Sunday excursion of Fairman Rogers’
four-horse carriage so exactly that
for the first time in history
a painting represented correctly how horses trot,
each set of four legs caught
at a different moment of the cycle,
Eakins maintained what he had developed
through long labor as intimate as love-making--
a vision equivalent to that of x-rays,
the ability to see horseflesh as a cross-section diagram.

Therefore, when my glossy neighbor, whose return
always marks for me the beginning of spring,
slows her approach, less a blur now than
a singular shape, I’m thinking that Eakins
loved Billy not just for their history together
but also for his powerful lumbar vertebrae,
which solidly support the hide I now can see
like a muddied pool of sunlight on her back,
as well as the longissimus dorsi muscle,
that extends from neck to rump like the span
of a great bridge between two worlds,
between fact and imagination, the two impossibly one.

As she lips the sugar off my left palm,
I pat her forehead with my right,
near what Eakins could identify as
the squamous portion of her temporal bone,
before rubbing the masseter that covers her mandible
with flesh as broad and firm as a young girl’s buttock.  
And then I notice the deltoideus
rippling above her left front leg
and know that one layer below it the infraspinatus
is doing its work unsung as usual, matter
not too lowly to be--no, lowly enough to be--
Whitman’s hub of the wheeling universe,
though Eakins sang it to himself as he cut and painted.

Now she wants more sandy sweetness
and pushes her incisors at me, but I’m figuring
how deep the romance of the horse goes,
all the way down to the internal thoracic artery.
And when the second cervical nerve carries to her brain
the message there is no more sugar, no more
no more sugar, she suddenly spins away,
but not before I marvel at the pressure
absorbed by her left leg’s carpus, that joint
composed of eight tiny individual bones
in two rows like oarsmen on an ancient ship
and which, though often referred to as
the knee, and looking like one, Eakins knew
was anatomically equivalent
to the human wrist,

so that, whenever his attention went
to that spot, he could not help but think,
like someone resistless against a dream,
how that extremity by rights ought to end
not in a shoe
but at the very least in digits,
or maybe even a tool,
say, a paintbrush.


1.  Philadelphia Prostitute to Thomas Eakins (1876)

You artists have the dirtiest minds of all.
Look but not touch?  It gives me the creeps.
So I’m to pose naked like some piece of marble,
not be a woman? I should call the cops.

And I work with one at a time, no groups.
Students?  Worse.  Bad-mannered little beasts.
Lady painters, too?  So?  You deserve a slap
in the face.  I may be curved, but I’m not twisted.

Worst, though, is how you make the flesh sound lofty,
like church.  No Christian worthy of the name
mixes up sex and preacher-talk, as if
the body’s some living shrine.  Have a little shame.

Still, I like your dark complexion, darker eyes.
For Art, then, I’ll do it--double my usual price.

2. Walt Whitman to Horace Traubel  (1890)

When Tom first taught at the Academy,
the practice was to hire prostitutes
to pose in the life model class, but he
hated the confusion of nudity with bought
sex and after a few tries called it quits.

No big talker, yet he found the right words
to convince some students’ mothers to let
their daughters take turns posing in the nude.
The young ladies did so, to all’s content,
until one day one of them came in bare

except for a bracelet.  Tom fumed, as out of joint
as if she’d come to pose covered in fur.
He ripped it off and threw it on the floor.
It was just like Eakins, and a great point!