“Lisa” by Katie Bickham

Katie Bickham


There was a time the smiling lady
saw the world unguarded—nothing
between her eyes and the eyes
of her admirers. She’d felt naked, then,
in her frame, even in all those heavy clothes,
but liked it. Her smile had been real,
the kind that came without thinking
like a breath. The kind that almost
dared them: “Touch me.”
But then, one did. He stole her
in the Parisian night, kept her locked away
beneath his floorboards.
He’d say later he meant to take her home,
back to Florence where she belonged,
that it had all been a valiant rescue,
knight and damsel sort of thing,
but she knew, smiling in the damp dark
under his feet. He’d wanted only
to own, to feel her under him, to have her
chaste and smiling, locked up tight.
She was found, of course,
brought back into the light,
returned to her perch, but by then
she was legend, the smiling lady
who no man could resist. And that smile dared more,
thought those who gazed upon it.
One man tried to take a razorblade to her,
desperate to see what was hiding
between those wry closed lips.
The next threw a stone, like in the old stories
about what happened to women
who gave their smiles too freely.
But by then, like all too-beautiful
women, she’d been placed behind a wall
of glass. Thick like armor. Like bars.
The smile, then fixed in place,
felt sour on her face, but necessary.
You cannot hurt me, it seemed to say.
But that is its own kind of dare.
In the decades that followed,
a man would throw acid at her—
hungry for the power of having ruined
something beautiful. She was sprayed
with red paint, accosted by a thrown
teacup that shattered, the glass laughing,
and she, smiling, as a woman must
whom nothing can ever hurt, or ever touch.
They all had their reasons, perhaps
even good ones.
This week, a man smeared the glass
with cake frosting, sugared and glistening
under the measured light. He said
he was doing it to save the world,
because her smile was the world, and anyone
who could dirty it would be the world
as well, anyone who could shake it,
destroy it, could call it his own.
She smiled, as she does, longing, oddly,
to taste it, to feel something soft,
something sweet on her curved lips.
But it was cleaned away quickly,
glass sprayed and sterilized,
and the man with the cloths didn’t even glance
through the glass at her while he worked.
When they all leave in the evenings,
when the lights are turned low and she is alone,
she considers closing her eyes,
letting the tired muscles in her cheeks
go slack. She wishes, even for a moment,
to glance back over her own shoulder
at the horizon line, hazy in the distance.
How far away the years of smiling
truly. How long it has been since she’s felt
the air on her own face, smelled the sweetness
of a new child who has come to smile back at her,
truly. She catches her own reflection
in the low-lit glass. The smile that dared,
that once was real and offered something up,
looks tired at the corners, she imagines,
but goes on smiling all the same.
Tonight, eyes fixed open, smiling
in the way a woman must to get by
in this world, she decides
she will no longer dream of being free,
of baby’s breath or sweetness on her tongue.
She dreams of equally impossible things.
Of blades, of acid, of stones.

from Poets Respond
June 7, 2022


Katie Bickham: “While reading this week that the Mona Lisa had been smeared with cake by a man dressed as a woman in a wheelchair, a follow-up article also listed all of the times the smiling lady has been stolen or vandalized in the past, and it was quite a list. Sometimes the causes even seemed noble. But I always like to remember that every historical figure was also a person, and I imagined her as a person, and then as a woman in particular, forever smiling even has she spends the rest of her life behind glass, forever watching people alternately admire her or try to ruin her for daring to smile.” (web)

Rattle Logo