Extracts from a sequence based on portraits of Marchesa Luisa Casati

Giovanni Boldini, 1914

A silver vortex spews peacock feathers
and mermaid limbs, a surrogate
washed in dizzy violet surf
for want of subject on the fur shore.

The crab hand outdoes the eye, luring
a crouched figure onto the stage
in occult configurations
that can only mean failure.

Cocteau clinches it:
the house is haunted
because emptiness is abhorred.
The figure centre stage is spotlit

but there’s no play to act,
the tragedy is want of a tragedy,
the story is the lack.
An audience can be placated

by repeating grand entrances to give
the semblance of forward movement,
but gradually the green room
will flood with irreconcilable myths.

Perched at the high water
meaninglessness reaches,
culture runs out, the spell breaks
and nothing but surface, unadorned

surface is left. The blank sheet,
flat calm, the white sail, the black sail,
a brazen lie the surface
tells of underneath.

Romaine Brooks, 1920

Having high-priestessed her haute monde
coven’s latest pink mass
and delivered a black, crushed velvet sack
(two actual shrunken heads) to Munthe

with no explanation,
she pauses to pose theatrically
before bowing out in opiate sleep.
Hating the theatrical and hating her,

Brooks does her theatrically
with irony lost on magical thinking
and lost on herself: the mirror image
of beauty, of Martini’s butterfly,

a fascist metamorphosis
into a bat. Hideous modern power
in that concrete right-angle
at the golden third is twisted

against the sun by π-by-two
and reflected about the vertical axis
of the naked body. Pure Bauhaus,
(the band not the school).

The fingers at the frame’s corset
are angry wasps: she is, Brooks opines,
love’s absolute opposite
and is unable to confront the abstract.

The canvas was found under the mattress
where Brooks lay dead
at ninety-six. Then it disappeared.
No one wins. No one understands it.

Federico Beltrán Masses, 1920 

The blue glass ball
she flaunts at the studio door
was a gift from D’Annunzio.
After announcing she’s only able

to sit for one night, her mutable
presence reflects in it as a phantom ship,
a Spanish clipper, stock still
on a millpond of Sargasso blue.

She’s clothed in lazy, transparent sailcloth,
her skeleton masts, rigged
in a strapless dress, are adrift
on a meniscus of paint:

her double has fallen into
the sphere’s microcosmic order.
For a moment her soul’s nomadic no more,
blueness festoons her

to the point of reclining.
That damned poet’s dreamwork can capture
her duplicate’s katabasis
down into the labyrinthine

sciences of metaphor.
A button is all that’s left behind, lost
at the point it came loose
in an awful silence.

Unknown, 1920s

Luisa is trying on a newspaper scarf
in bed
under an ostrich feather blanket
after breakfasting on Pernod and fried fish.

It crumples round her neck
in creased straplines that defer
to the curve of the earth,
the attention slips,

perspective’s false convergence.
The scarf’s reflex makes a letter S
that’s repeated by a snake
in the painted miniature.

Her spine
strikes through the letter.
The bar splits the snake.
Nothing animal can survive.

Take the panther, you know, The Panther.
it’s now mechanical.

Head and tail clock
side to side,
green eyes light up,
it growls (kind of).

Are we in Hell, Kore?
Baudelairian pupils fatten
and the miniature locketed sign dangles,
curing by obscuring.

Man Ray, 1922 

The hotel suite’s fuses blow.
In natural light the photo session
winds up lacklustre, domestic,
a montage of testy exposures.

The roll has wrapped around a null,
but the model, Luisa,
insists on developing the curse.
Pick any five. Take one.

The model has three pairs of eyes,
triple goddess, the three orders.
She’s enchanted. She adores it.
Pretention is always inspired.

Her charmingly grainy
telekinetic imprint, courtesy
of the spirit world’s
chemical intervention, is the making

of Man Ray. The photo pretends
to whisper a safe word in triplicate
but it’s saying nothing, its terrible
truth is the absence of sense.