Ruth Fainlight is best known for her friendship with Sylvia Plath, but has written much elegant and vital poetry herself such as this striking poem below. One of the joys in being published in a fine journal is reading the work of others, in this case Emily Grosholz’ excellent essay in Think magazine on Fainlight. (No links because this is a print venue, but…) I will quote briefly from the essay below the poem.
Susannah and the Elders
Sometimes she’s painted clothed, but most
prefer her naked; she’s shown at various
ages: a sturdy, angry girl
able to fight back—then more
submissive; flesh to eye and handle
by merchants choosing cattle,or ancients
hoping to regain their youth.
Often the elders are timid, crouch
under balustrades, hide in the bushes,
peer around statuary. But when the maidservants
leave her alone in the garden, bolder,
the turbaned, scrawny-necked fools
creep to the foreground, pluck at her towels
and drapery, grimace encouragement.
Yet no matter how passive she seems—
or complacent, frightened, even peacefully
unaware of their presence, always
she inhabits a separate universe,
realm of the indifferent good:
purified with living waters,
a talisman of flesh and blood.
Grosholz writes, “…as Leibniz wrote, a consciousness is inviolable; a mind (unlike a body) is a unity, which cannot be entered from outside, or broken into parts, or (as he believed) destroyed. Thus the…beauty central to all the great paintings of this scene may be understood as a figure for Susannah’s awareness, here sheer presence as a self.”
This reminds me of Kwame Dawes’ poem “If You Know Her” which presents the same idea of presence under entirely different circumstances. A supremely important idea, so well expressed.