By Darlyn Finch Kuhn
“A woman’s body is the most beautiful thing in the world,” the artist says, and staring at the canvas he’s painted, I have to agree. The standing nude — young, lithe, glancing over her impossibly lovely shoulder at the viewer, shimmers with perfection.
Later, at dinner, as he raises his glass of wine in my direction, here it comes, I think, and he does not disappoint; his first suggestion for our artistic collaboration is to paint me, the poet, in the nude. So why do I feel so disappointed? “I prefer to reveal myself through words,” I demur. Recently divorced, watching my elder brother succumb with bitter resignation to the side effects of diabetes, I am weary to the bone, with no patience for any nonsense from men.
Driving home, I convince myself that while ekphrastic poetry from artworks in museums is a legitimate form of expression I enjoy, collaboration with a living, breathing artist may not be my cup of tea. What have I gotten myself into?
Weeks pass. Give it time, I tell myself; we’ll think of something. The artist and I have spoken on the phone, written countless emails, and still are no closer to coming up with a theme we agree on, much less to putting a brushstroke on canvas or a word on the page. The deadline is looming. We cannot produce NOTHING. The poet laureate of Florida is spearheading the project; eleven other poet-artist pairs are busy producing work; the Brevard Art Museum has reserved a gallery for the results, and there’s an opening cocktail reception on the calendar. The media is invited. Failure is not an option.
Life intervenes. My brother has fallen out of bed with a seizure; my elderly mother has ruptured a hernia trying to lift him off the floor. I must travel right away to my hometown; I must handle things. I must fix this. I find a place for my brother; it is close to my mother’s home, so she can visit daily, and I can drive up on weekends. It is not cheap; it is all we can afford. I am racked with guilt; I live alone, in a house with steep stairs, in a town where he knows no one; there is no way he can stay with me. I look into his eyes and tell him this. He nods and looks away.
I cry all the way home, and when I arrive, the artist has written an email to tell me how sorry he is that he’s been out of touch. His mentor, the teacher who taught him to paint, lies dying, and he’s had to put her in a nursing home. There is no one else to do this; he is racked with guilt. “I’m bleeding, my soul is on fire and I am ready to make a deal with the devil … or God. Not sure which one yet,” he writes.
I click reply. “Paint that! That’s poetry,” I type. Then I pick up the phone. We talk for hours. Not about art, not about poetry. About life. About pain. About suffering and guilt. About how it feels to want to fix someone we love, and being powerless to do so.
When we hang up the phone, we are collaborators and friends. He paints with abandon. I write, nonstop.
In the coming days, feverish emails fly through cyberspace. We are no longer tentatively offering ideas to be quickly rejected by the other. Ideas flow fast and furious, and there is an intoxicating sense of possibility. Our individual pain, expressed to the world on canvas and page, will become universal pain, and thereby be shared and released.
Ideas now come easily. Execution is difficult. How to paint a broken heart, without making it a Valentine? How to write the slow dying of a brother?
I send him poems I am not thrilled with. He sends a photo of his painting, all abstract blacks, whites, grays and reds. He has painted his suffering soul, but he is unhappy with the lower left quadrant. “It is too mechanical and contrived,” he writes.
It is okay that we haven’t yet found the key. We are working, together and apart, and that is enough.
Death intervenes. I hold my brother’s hand; my mother grips his other, while the nurse disconnects all the machines keeping him bound to his prison-house of pain. Our step-father weeps without words. My brother does not linger long; his spirit has moved on, but his heart continues to beat for five endless minutes while the alarm clangs its shrill warning and the monitor moves from steady to erratic pulses, and then to a long flat line. The nurse re-enters the room to turn the monitor off, then leaves us in the blessed silence to say our last goodbyes.
I send the artist the set of poems about my brother. The final one is called “Alarm.” We agree that this is the one we should choose for our collaborative project. He tells me he has finished the painting, that he will see me at the gallery, that he is looking forward to introducing me to his wife, and to meeting my fiancée.
The four of us say our hellos and wander, sipping wine, through the gallery, where works of art and framed poems are mounted side-by-side, with elegant name-plates giving the artists’ and poets’ names as well as the titles of the pieces. “Alarm,” reads the plate beside my poem. “Alarm,” reads the title of his painting. I glance at the familiar strokes representing blood, crosses, bridges, tears, a childhood dog, and what looks to me like a ghostly piano; I recognize these from the photo he’d sent. But now I see how the artist has made the lower left quadrant come alive … he has added the jagged crimson lub-dup of a heart monitor, fading slowly into a flat red line. True collaboration: I have written his guilt and pain into my poem, and he has painted my brother’s final heartbeats. Together, we have trained a mirror on the face of Death, and watched it transform into something holy.
Darlyn Finch Kuhn is the author of two poetry collections (Red Wax Rose and Three Houses). Her work has appeared in various journals and been read by Garrison Keillor on the Writers Almanac. She is the eponymous “Scribbler,” of the Scribbles e-newsletter for central Florida literary activity. Kuhn produces book trailer videos with her husband at Brad Kuhn & Associates, LLC in Orlando, Florida. Her debut novel, Sewing Holes, is forthcoming from Twisted Road Publications in March, 2015.