“Bonnard’s Wife’s Ashes” by Paula Goldman

Paula Goldman


Stooped shoulders, small breasts. The womanly
head bent, Marthe, the model
he made wife in 1925,
she was upset someone might whisper, “She’s one
of those women one doesn’t
marry.” Even here,
her meager shoulders seem to carry
lead. The shadow of her head
blackens the tub.
She invented a life, assumed a name,
de Meligny, a demimondaine,
daughter of a carpenter,
said her family was dead. She took baths
obsessively. Marthe walked
like a bird on tiptoe,
the weightless walk that comes from wings. Raspy
voiced, strict diets, raw meat, saw
no one but her husband.
The doctors couldn’t figure what ailed her.
Though in 384 paintings, she was young, full
fleshed. And when she died at 72,
he locked the door to her room,
finished the last tub painting: four years
rearranging, decomposing,
ending their long estrangement.
No wonder all the baths; she needed
to feel weightless, as
he drowned her in light.

from Rattle #30, Winter 2008


Paula Goldman: “After I left my job as a reporter, I began taking baths every morning, rather than showers. The tub was in an alcove of the master bedroom off a sun porch where the light floated in, creating shadows of soft waves on the surrounding walls. The house was built in 1911. When I’d first seen Bonnard’s paintings of his wife in the tub, I thought of that wonderful dreamy immersion into another element. He was one of the first persons in France to have an installed bathtub. Poetry is that kind of immersion.”

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